As parents, we often find it ourselves struggling to carry a conversation in pure Mandarin, forgetting some terms and finding it easier to speak in English. We may also not be aware of the many traditions and elements of our Chinese culture.
How then can we help our kids to see Mandarin in a positive light, appreciate their heritage to get a sense of who they are, and be able to hold a decent conversation with a Mandarin-speaking elderly?
We tried different ways to introduce Mandarin to our kids, and many of them backfired. When looking for books to read, we were unsure how to choose good books that stand the test of time and can be enjoyed by the whole family. We tried to speak more Mandarin at home with the kids, but they preferred communicating in English instead. There were times we felt lost and discouraged in our parenting journey with regards to Mandarin.
Are we alone?
Wanting to know if others were having similar struggles, we asked around for opinions, and decided to construct an informal survey.
Each survey had 6 questions about using Chinese at home. (Examples: Do you agree that it is important for our children to learn Chinese? Why so? Why not? How much time do you spend speaking in Mandarin at home with your children? Etc) This online survey was completed in November 2017, representing 50 Singaporean Chinese families with one or more children from newborn to 6 years old.
What we found
These are the 3 key findings:
- Parents agree that learning Chinese is important
An overwhelming majority of the parents (>95%) surveyed believed that learning Chinese was important for their children.
The most important reason cited was that it would help them stay rooted in their Chinese heritage. The next most important reason was because they believed learning Chinese was a life skill that would aid them in future. A large proportion also wanted their children to be able to communicate better with their grandparents who conversed in Mandarin.
Why parents felt learning Chinese is important (in order of importance):
1. To stay rooted in the Chinese heritage and better appreciate the Chinese culture and history
2. To acquire a life skill
3. To improve communication with grandparents and elderly
4. To improve job prospects
5. To do well in school
Table 1: Reasons why parents felt learning Chinese is important, ranked by importance
- Home exposure to Chinese is lacking
Surprisingly, the amount of time spent speaking Mandarin at home was found to be disproportionate to the importance placed on learning the language. We found that 1 in 10 parents did not speak Mandarin at home at all. Another 6 in 10 parents spent a total of less than 3 hours a week using Mandarin at home with their children.
- Parents faced challenges in reading Chinese books to their children
When asked about reading Chinese books with their children, many parents expressed difficulties in doing so. These were the 4 main challenges faced:
- not knowing how to choose good quality Chinese books
- not having enough time to read Chinese books with the children
- not having the confidence to read Chinese books with the children
- parent/child having preference for English books
What does it mean for parents?
Our findings identify that Chinese-related activities at home were not frequent. To our surprise, this was exactly what researchers at Singapore Centre for Chinese Language, Nanyang Technological University also found in their recent study . In the same study, Li et al (2016) also found that creating a literacy-rich environment correlates strongly to improved Mandarin.
The importance of the home environment on literacy is echoed in a plethora of research from Bonci (2008), Clark (2007) , Sénéchal & LeFevre (2014) amongst others.
Therefore, as parents, the onus is on us to find ways to provide this literacy-rich home environment. This is essential in our bid to help our kids hate Chinese less, speak and read better, and (gulp!) hopefully one day embrace it.
Armed with a better understanding of this challenge, we were determined to find out how to improve the home learning environment for Chinese. We then scoured the internet and pored through research articles to find solutions. We will be sharing our newfound knowledge in the upcoming post to save you time, tears and heartache!
Quick Action Plan for Parents
Do you want Mandarin to be important for your child(ren)? Why?
How often do you speak Mandarin with your kids? How do they usually respond when you do?
Which is your greatest challenge in reading Chinese books with your kids?
Which parts of Chinese did you struggle with in your own childhood? How did that make you feel? What could have given you more confidence then?
Long Term Action Plan for Parents
Observe and evaluate your family environment on Chinese literacy to identify factors that encourage or discourage the use of Mandarin. Kudos for successes, keep at it for works in progress, take courage to tackle new areas!
If you plan to focus more on Chinese, it may be helpful to sit down with your spouse or even with kids to hear what they say, explain why and to brainstorm for ideas. This involves the whole family and lets the kids take ownership of their learning.
Share your thoughts
Comment below to share your journey with Mandarin too!
Bonci, A. (2008). A research review: the importance of families and the home environment. National Literacy Trust. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED521654.pdf.
Clark, C. (2007). Why It Is Important to Involve Parents in Their Children's Literacy Development: A Brief Research Summary. National Literacy Trust. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED496346.pdf.
Li, L., Tan, C. L., & Goh, H. H. (2016). Home language shift and its implications for Chinese language teaching in Singapore. Cogent Education (2016), 3: 1161958.
Sénéchal, M., & LeFevre, J. A. (2014). Continuity and change in the home literacy environment as predictors of growth in vocabulary and reading. Child development, 85(4), 1552-1568.