Published by ITS 2018 HK School Guide, Written by Jessica Ye Trainor 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 native child learns, through exploring the world around them, being talked to entirely in Mandarin. Children learn the language, and experience Chinese culture at her school, a Reggio Emilia inspired Mandarin immersion school in Central:
“Children learn through the interactions they have with the world around them, we all learnt our mother tongues like that after all. Our aim is to give children a nurturing environment to learn Mandarin. In this immersive environment children are allowed to follow their inquiry based learning to develop holistically, with teachers engaging and guiding them using Mandarin as the only medium of instruction.”
For age 0-2 years, we teach children about the world around them, through lots of sensory play, physical activities, music and stories.
When children get older, we add specialised 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.
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 introduce characters to children through stories and music as early as 2 years old. 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.
There are 3 common mistakes I see parents make when it comes to Mandarin learning:
1. Translated learning
Often, seeing a child not understanding immediately, parents and many teachers, will switch to English and explain. This translating works in the short term but children don’t need to build up a cross reference system like adults do. A child’s brain can simply associate words with context. They build multiple simultaneous streams of comprehension in their head. At its simplest, they don’t see ‘apple’ and translate it into Chinese, they are in ‘Mandarin mode’ and see pinguo.
When they learn their first language, there’s nothing to translate from, they learn by interacting and associating words with objects, actions and contexts. This is how they can best learn other languages.
2. Myth on speech delays
Many parents worry that learning an additional* language will delay the acquisition of the main language. Research shows that the total number of words learnt by children is fairly consistent but is split between the languages they know. So if they know 1,000 words for example, that could be 500 each in English and Chinese. Speaking isn’t delayed, they are just learning multiple languages together. So, don’t worry, start speaking your target language as early as possible.
*Children are very capable of being multi-lingual, let's change the perception of teaching them a second or third language, implying that the 1st language is more important. Let's refer them to Additional languages they are capable of acquiring, such as learning Mandarin as an Additional Language (MAL).
3. Rote learning and cramming
Generally rote learning for young children is not ideal. It can teach phrases and words but without interest and context. Repeating poems or speeches until learnt off by heart can be great for performances, but without understanding context or knowing how to use the words, mastery of the language is much more difficult.
Parents believe learning Mandarin is hard. Yes, learning Mandarin can be difficult for an English speaker as it is a tonal language and there are thousands of characters to learn. One of the things that makes it easier is to start early and learn it in the same way you would with your mother tongue!