Published by ITS 2018 HK School Guide, Written on Aug 24th 2017
Do you remember the days when the RMB was weaker than the HKD? It was only 10 years ago, but back then speaking Mandarin in shops and restaurants was often met with contempt and open rudeness.
Now, speaking Mandarin is cool! More and more parents are sending their children to learn Mandarin, either to continue their heritage or to gain an advantage for the future.
How can young kids learn Mandarin in Hong Kong (or anywhere else where Mandarin is a minority language)?
Jessica Ye Trainor, founder of the Mulberry House Mandarin Immersion school, firmly believes that young children learn Mandarin best the same way a child learns his native language, through exploring the world around them, being talked to entirely in Mandarin.
“Children learn through the interactions they have with the world around them, we all learned our mother tongues like that after all! Our aim is to give children a nurturing environment to learn and to actively think and speak in Mandarin. In this immersive environment, children are enabled to follow their inquiry-based learning to develop holistically, with teachers engaging them through stories, science experiment, hands-on math activities, music and movement etc using Mandarin as the only medium of instruction.”
Children learning at different developmental stages:
For very young children between 0-2.5 years old, we are engaging children through all of their senses: seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching. Through these sensory activities, physical activities, music and movement, stories, they are absorbing a ton of sound bite and vocabulary, getting them ready to speak!
For children at a preschool age between 2.5-6 years old, their cognitive development and motor skill development is ready to learn more specialized subjects: arts, science, math, drama, and life skills, using Mandarin as the vehicle. Children enjoy science experiment, painting, writing Chinese calligraphy, constructing and creating crafts. This broadens their views in the early years, with what we believe are essential life skills to be creative, confident and competent.
The instruction is always purely in Mandarin, so children pick up new vocabulary and learn to use Chinese to describe what they are doing and learning. This approach works for both native and non-native children and, in fact, mixing children of different backgrounds together benefits all of them. This is the most effective way for young children to get as much Mandarin exposure and context as possible.
How can parents support Mandarin at home?
Language acquisition is not easy. The point is to make it fun and to create and maintain interest hence children want to use it to communicate!
- If there is at least one parent speaking Mandarin at home, start Mandarin as early as possible, before the English and Cantonese playground languages drive your child to speak the more popular language. Try to speak Mandarin as much as possible, and if that’s difficult, dedicate specific time to bond, play games and read stories in Mandarin, and take holidays in China and Taiwan.
- If there is no Mandarin at home, there are many other ways to supplement. There are many online resources now: Netflix has Mandarin dubbed cartoons, there are youtube channels (including Mulberry House) and digital apps such as LinguPinguin, Quizlet or Pleco. Also learning with your child is hugely motivating and a great opportunity to bond with them.
Don’t forget to introduce Chinese characters to your child early to start building a strong foundation for Chinese literacy. Mulberry House introduces characters to children through stories and music as early as 2.5 years old. Hong Kong is a brilliant environment to learn traditional Chinese characters as visually children see all signages in shops and on the street. So far children can master 3-5 characters a month, as they perceive the characters as pictures, and as long as they are taught in context and get to use the characters, they will retain them. Remember it is much better to start early but teach a few characters at a time, and really learn it; rather than only starting to teach lots at once starting at primary years.