Teach your child to speak Mandarin

Teach your child to speak Mandarin

For children who predominantly speak English at home, what can you do, as a parent, to help them embrace the learning of the Chinese language?

You’ve tried your best to read Mandarin storybooks to your preschooler, only to be met with blank stares.

You’ve tried speaking to them in Mandarin but can never follow through consistently, especially when they refuse to answer you.

You’ve even insisted that the Playhouse Disney Channel be set to Mandarin, but amidst violent objections, you cave in and switch it back to English.

The once a week Chinese enrichment classes do not seem to help. They sit through the 1 hour class obediently, only to come back naturally switching to English again.

For children who predominantly speak English at home, what can you do, as a parent, to help them embrace the learning of the Chinese language?

How do you make the process of learning Mandarin become less of a daunting and confusing experience for your child?


Current methodologies adopted in Preschools

Many preschools today, still adopt the conventional methods of teaching Mandarin. The exact same rigors of teaching Mandarin that parents born in the 1970s/80s were put through continue to plague the preschool children of today.

Much emphasis is still being placed on rote learning and constant drilling through spelling tests and repetitive writing of Chinese characters. This is followed up by paper assessments that reinforce the recognization and understanding of Chinese characters.

However with this teaching methodology, children become bored and lose interest in the language very quickly.

Moreover because their vocabulary is limited, any misunderstanding between the child and his Chinese teacher will only instill more fear and resentment during subsequent Chinese lessons. This will become a vicious cycle that will hinder progress in the child’s learning.

Consequently, parents and schools should adopt alternative ways of teaching the language in order for children to enjoy learning it.

Teach your child to speak Mandarin


Revamping of current methodologies

Key changes are being put in place to ensure that children entering primary schools will be studying their mother tongue languages differently from now on. Greater emphasis will be placed on real life usage and interaction skills, both oral and written.

In a recent report in the Straits Times (19 Jan 2011), Education Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen emphasized that “if you want to keep the language and you want students to learn the language effectively, you have to teach them to use it and it must go beyond just being a subject that is examined. It’s simple because it’s intuitive, but profound because it means changes to the way we teach, the way we test. It’s also profound because homes will have to support that kind of environment and the community will have to support that kind of environment”.

With these changes being initiated in primary and secondary schools, it is imperative that preschools also be aligned with these new directives, so that the transition into primary school will not be a traumatic experience for your child.

And thankfully, there is a plethora of things that parents can do to help prepare their preschooler for primary school.



1.   Make reading fun

Books are not just tools to help your child achieve literacy.  Use different kinds of media to help your child recognize and read Chinese characters. Encourage your child to read billboards, posters, menus, recipes, road signs, song lyrics…the options are endless.

With greater exposure, they will realize that they can order food in Chinese, sing along with the lyrics to the latest Mandarin pop song, understand the synopsis of a Chinese movie and appreciate details of a product an advertising billboard is extolling.

They will start to become aware that Mandarin is everywhere around them and the desire to read and learn more will follow naturally.

2.   Inquiry based learning

Think of different themes that are relevant and real to your child, and explore them together.

Encourage him to use Mandarin to ask questions about things that interest him and reaffirm his efforts, no matter how fundamental.

Help him express his thoughts in Mandarin, then get on the net together to find answers to his questions or take him outdoors to learn about the world around him. Learning does not necessarily have to be confined within the four walls of the home or the classroom.

If your child is able to understand and communicate effectively in Mandarin, this important and practical skill will pave the way to fluency in the language as he grows older.

3.   Creative activities

Give your child a camera and allow him free rein in taking pictures of people, places, items and animals that fascinate him. Then print out those pictures and weave a story based on them, in Mandarin of course!

Or conversely, write short sentences on various objects or scenarios and get your child to draw pictures that can help illustrate what you have written!

Parents, do your homework too!

Parents should also do their “homework” when it comes to choosing a suitable preschool that suits the needs of your child.

Dr Ng noted that children, who predominantly speak English at home will be “better able to absorb and learn their Mother Tongue if they spend 70 per cent of their time in kindergarten using the language.”

Hence it is crucial for parents to learn more about the curriculum of the school, its teachers and possibly even sitting in during a trial class. They will then be able to make an informed decision as to whether their child will be happy in school and be inspired to learn.

Check out schools that adopt interactive approaches in teaching Mandarin, where children get frequent hands-on sessions and are constantly encouraged to be active contributors.

Shortlist schools that offer fun programs because preschoolers learn best through play. When it comes to embracing the learning of Mandarin, a curriculum that is fun and engaging will reap the most benefits for a child with very little exposure to the language.

Schools that place great emphasis on fostering a good partnership with parents at home are also important, as parents are assured of an open communication channel between them and the school. These feedbacks will also go a long way in helping the child to learn and absorb the language.

This article is contributed by LiAnne Sia, Centre Director of Twinkle Kidz Preschool, a Mandarin based kindergarten. This is with a 70/30 emphasis in Mandarin across all levels from N1 to K2.  

It is the only preschool in Singapore to offer a balanced and holistic preschool education that centres on the strong integration of life skills together with the Arts and Fitness.

In addition, it also offers innovative workshops like Groove with Wushu, Akido, Funky Aerobics and inline skating conducted by specialist trainers as part of its fitness program.  Call 62450838 for more information on Twinkle Kidz Preschool.

Also read: Two languages are better than one

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