Learning Mandarin need not be a chore. We offer four ways to make it easy, natural and fun!

When children learn a second language there are five recognised stages of language acquisition: Preproduction – 0 to 6 months, Early Production – 6 months to 1 year, Speech Emergence – 1 to 3 years, Intermediate Fluency – 3 to 5 years and Advanced Fluency – 5 to 7 years. As with all developmental milestones, the exact time frame for progressing from one stage to another is general and depends on the individual learner, their environment, the quality of their language role models and the extent to which they are immersed within the language.  

The brain is a highly malleable organ that remains active across a persons lifespan, though it is at its most neuroplastic from birth to the age of three. The development of communicating through oral language is an instinctive process that comes naturally to children because it tends to be the most common way they interact with one another. But how the brain is structured is also vital for language development, as well as for motor skills, emotional, social and cognitive development. Just as we evolve neural circuits for eating and seeing, so has our brain, together with a sophisticated vocal apparatus, evolved a complex neural circuit for rapidly perceiving, analyzing, composing, and producing language(Eliot, 1999).

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How much the brains neural connections or synapses are stimulated depends on the quality of the childs interactions and how nurturing and enjoyable they are.  The more positive, fun and natural a childs experiences, the easier it is for them to acquire a second language. And the amazing news is, we know that young children can learn at least three languages in this way simultaneously. 

When it comes to learning Mandarin or rather helping your child learn Mandarin, we know that many parents find this challenging. How can you ensure that the process of learning is enjoyable enough to guarantee those synapses keep on doing their thing? How can you encourage your child to love the process of learning a complex language? And, how can you help them learn to communicate in that language effectively?

Here are our top four tips: 

Endless exposure!  The more you expose your child from the earliest age to Mandarin (or whatever language you wish them to absorb as their second language) the better! In fact, you dont even have to wait until they are born. We now know from research that an unborn child is able to hear in the womb 10 weeks before birth – through bone conduction. Speaking and singing to your unborn child has a significant affect on their ability to recognise language post natal, as well as feel comforted by the sound of a familiar voice when they cry or feel cold or hungry.  

If you do not feel particularly confident to use Mandarin yourself, or likewise no other family member, then expose your child to as many real-life experiences as possible where the language is spoken. In Singapore, we are spoilt for choice. When language has a direct relevance to your childs life they will absorb it easily. 

For these early years, research the best Chinese childcare programmes in Singapore or an early learning enrichment programme you can attend with your child. Ensure that any accompanied programme places positivity and fun at the centre of each activity and is facilitated by quality educators who speak Standard Mandarin at all times. 

Natural is key! Language is caught not taught, so from day one (and before), talk to your baby not at them, using a wide range of words. Use them frequently and naturally in the babys presence. Language prompts you might use at this very early stage are to ask questions such as Who has the rattle?” “Where is [names] bottle?. As your child grows, you can prompt deeper language comprehension and vocabulary acquisition by asking questions that require a very short phrase or a few words as a response.

The important thing to remember is that children learn through osmosis. They will acquire language if exposed to it regularly and in natural settings, at home or in a play environment for example. Interact with and chat normally to your child as they develop and grow. If there are two languages spoken in your household, for example Mandarin and English, speak both to your baby from birth. Its tempting to switch if you know how, but try to be consistent with each parent conversing to your child in their first language only.

As your child grows older, the more their experiences and horizons expand (where possible), the more vocabulary they will acquire too! 

Read stories. Children love listening to stories. The more fun you can make reading a story, the more your child will look forward to the next time you read together and anticipate the words – so be creative with your reading. Use funny voices, make funny faces. Similarly, find good quality, age-appropriate videos that are fun to watch and enable you to use words in conversation afterwards.

Musical rhythms. Music is a great way for young children to pick up the natural rhythm of language and to hear sounds pronounced correctly. It is also one of the best ways for them to memorise vocabulary. Songs with simple melodies and repeated phrases work best. Find a collection of Chinese childrens songs or nursery rhymes that your child loves; play them at night or in the car or let them listen during any convenient time of day. If you are not a natural Mandarin speaker yourself, its a great way for you to model the joy of learning something new as you grow in confidence together!

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    We have been teaching Mandarin in Singapore for over 20 years and have much experience in supporting parents and children in all aspects of language learning.
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