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10 Secret Tips for Building Mandarin Fluency in Kids

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1. Long term interest is most important

Language acquisition is not easy. Thinking long term, your goal is to get your little one to want to converse with you or others in Mandarin naturally, not by force, so the point is to make it fun and to create and maintain interest. Children learn best through play, interactions and experiences relevant to their everyday lives. With language learning, linguists suggest the 30% rule: a child should spend at least 30% of their waking time naturally learning a language, with Early, Constant, and Interactive (ECI) exposure in their learning environment.

2. Immersion works best

By living life in an immersion environment, children embrace it just as they learn their first language. The Public Library of Science published a study which found that those who had learned a new language with the immersion method had brain waves similar to those of native speakers of a language when speaking that language. Those who trained with the traditional language class also became more native-like in their brain processing, but only the immersion group showed full native-like processing of the grammar.

3. Study in a Mandarin Immersion school

Ideally learning a new language in the most natural way possible in practice: visiting and immersing in a city that speaks the target language. This is also known as in-country immersion. However, it’s not always possible to travel to or live in another country, but there are other ways to immerse yourself or your child in another language. The best way is to study in a Mandarin Immersion school! Regular classes in an immersion school keep a continuance in your child’s learning journey and allowing them a place to practice and use the language on a regular basis. Having native teachers and other native students around is also super motivating. By learning about the world, through various subjects such as science, math, music etc, children is learning the language in various contexts and through natural communication, building up their worldly view and full understanding framework in the target language (hence the focus isn’t pure language and vocabulary).

4. Support Mandarin at home as early as possible

Whether there are Mandarin speakers at home or not, parents can support their child’s journey to Mandarin fluency by bringing Mandarin into their homes. 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 Mainland China and Taiwan.

5. Apply one person one language or designate Mandarin time at home

If you can, apply one person, one language. In order for OPOL to be successful, there needs to be consistency. The earlier you start the better. However if your child’s dominant language is already established – as early as 1.5 years old — gradually ease Mandarin in. Be patient and don't give up.

If one parent is not able to speak Mandarin 100% of the time,designate a particular Mandarin hour such as Mandarin story time, game time, or family time. In this case, the non-Mandarin speaking family members will all learn together. You can start with 5 minutes and gradually increase the duration; the KEY is to make it ENGAGING.

6. Built out a predictable routine at home

Being consistent regarding when, how and with whom they will use each language, and try to let the minority language get the most exposure and engagement by a consistent routine. For example,

A) Morning English/Cantonese, Afternoon Mandarin

B) Mon/Wed/Fri English/Cantonese, Tue/Thur/Sat Mandarin, Sun family day use the most convenient

C) Throughout the day English/Cantonese, bed time stories Mandarin

7. No need for 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.

8. Rote learning is generally not ideal for young children

Rote learning 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.

9. Get ample support along the way

You can’t do it alone in this long learning journey. Aside from getting support at an immersion school like Mulberry House, join an online parent discussion group focused on raising bilingual/multilingual children such as “Raising bilingual children in Chinese & English” on Facebook.

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.

10. Stay positive for your child's language acquisition journey

Encourage them to teach you, and show interest in learning with them. We encourage parents to cultivate your child's growth mindset and keep their learning journey interesting. We have seen children thrive with NO Mandarin at home, coming to an immersion school like Mulberry House regularly, they now speak fluently after just 8-12 months of learning. Be encouraged and motivated that you and your child can be successful.

Mulberry House is an Inquiry Based 100% Mandarin Immersion School, offering premier early childhood education (0-6 Yrs) and IB primary supporting programs (6-12 Yrs). With the children centered and natural immersion approach, children learn about the world through interactive classes, natural engagement and learning by doing.

Mulberry House is committed to provide stimulating learning opportunities to nurture the infinite potential in each child, setting themselves up for a bright multilingual future with its immersion programs and vibrant environment.

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