In Malaysia, Mandarin is a language that many parents value. Today, we can see many children being sent off to learn Mandarin in their early years and more parents are now opting to enroll their kids into Chinese medium primary schools, regardless of their ethnicity.
What is the appeal of Mandarin, making it a must-have language? Lee Mei, mother of a 6-year old boy says that it’s important that her child is fluent in Mandarin because it will help him understand and appreciate his ethnic roots better. But other than cultural reasons, she thinks Mandarin also contributes to his future career success. “I want my son to be able to speak and write Mandarin because it is the core of being Chinese,” she says. “But most importantly, being good in Mandarin would also guarantee him more employment opportunities in the future.”
According to the World Languages & Literatures faculty in Boston University, currently, one-fifth of the world speaks Chinese with Mandarin being the mother tongue for over 873 billion people. This makes it the most widely-spoken first language worldwide. As China is projected to be a major economic player in the near future, being proficient in Mandarin Chinese will give children a stronger edge in their careers when they grow up.
Another parent, Siti Fatimah, also sends her daughter to a Mandarin pre-school even though she will be enrolling her in a Bahasa Malaysia-medium national school (Sekolah Kebangsaan) later. “Mandarin is definitely not easy to learn and it’s harder to pick up when we are older,” she shares. “It’s crucial that my daughter learns the language as early as possible – she’s only four now – so she can be truly proficient in it. When she goes to primary school in a few years, I will send her to after-school Mandarin classes so she can continue learning the language.”
Studies have shown that children below 6 have an incredible ability to pick up new languages. Therefore, it’s important to give your child an early head start in Mandarin so they can lay proper foundations for proficiency in this language. This said, parents play a vital role in their children’s language development. Here are some ideas on how parents can help their kids develop fluent Mandarin.
In a multilingual country like Malaysia, we are fortunate to have Mandarin used all around us. In fact, Mandarin “teachers” are technically everywhere! There’s always someone who knows Mandarin, so it’s easy to encourage your child to speak the language. From TV shows, song lyrics and even menus, there are also many materials presented in Chinese – you can use these to teach your child to read Chinese characters. With more exposure to the language, your child can learn Mandarin more effectively.
On the same note, if you want a more wholesome Chinese experience for your child, it’s a good idea to have family trips to countries where Chinese is the dominant language – for instance China and Taiwan. This is a good way to not only immerse your child in the language; it also opens up his or her eyes to Chinese culture.
Spending time with a native speaker
The more time your child spend time interacting with people in Mandarin, the better grasp of the language they will have. In a study on short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning led by Patricia Kuhl, Professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences, it was discovered that children could speak foreign languages better through interactions with a live person than through media like audio clips and videos. This is because talking to people provided children with social cues that held their attention in a way that other non-human formats could not.
If you can speak Mandarin well, do converse with your child in Mandarin whenever you can. Speak the language fully and do not mix it with words from other languages, otherwise it will confuse him or her. If Mandarin isn’t your primary language and your vocabulary is limited, you can have your child spend time with a native speaker – for example a grandparent, a friend or a neighbour who speaks the language fluently. For those of you who drop off your children to babysitters, you can also specifically choose Mandarin-speaking babysitters to take care of your child.
Mandarin-oriented enrichment programs
While the most direct route for a child to learn Mandarin is through language classes, this may not work so well when it’s just academically driven, especially for very young children. In this case, it’s best to go for enrichment programs that teach the language through play and discovery.
Additionally, you can also enrol them in enrichment activities like art, music or ballet that use Mandarin as the primary language to deliver lessons – this will not only give them the added benefit of learning something new, it will also help them learn Mandarin better.
Mandarin learning apps for kids
If you child loves games on the iPad, you can turn it into a fruitful Mandarin learning experience. There are many apps that teach the language in fun and creative ways. For instance, Kids Learn Mandarin (link: https://itunes.apple.com/en/app/kids-learn-mandarin-free-fingerprint/id636317204?mt=8) features fun and educational games to teach your child to speak, write and read over 200 Chinese words. Chinese Fridge Dim Sum (link: https://itunes.apple.com/za/app/chinese-fridge-dim-sum/id657686509?mt=8) is also another interesting app which uses cute animated graphics to help kids reinforce their Chinese food vocabulary.
Some parents worry if their child can get too immersed in Mandarin, causing them to neglect other languages like Bahasa Malaysia or English. Experts say it is highly unlikely as children have high multilingual abilities – but you have to start them young. It’s also suggested that parents speak to their kids in several languages at home, but always make sure that each sentence is spoken fluently in a single language.