Many parents who want their children to learn Chinese are often at a loss. To be fair, the differences between Chinese and languages like English, Spanish, German, etc. are vast, and it can be very difficult to know where to start. Fortunately, just like with other languages, there are certain approaches that work better when learning Chinese. Once you combine these tips (see below!), along with some good-old-fashioned perseverance, your child we be on the right path to developing comfort and, eventually, fluency.
Chinese characters have a very unique characteristic: they are illustrative. Because they are more like pictures than words, when teaching children to read them, we must first make it clear that what actually happens is “recognizing” the characters. That’s why when we teach children to read characters, one of the best methods is to use the objects around us, pasting sticky notes on the furniture at home, such as writing a “床 chuáng” on the bed and “椅 yǐ ” on the chairs. In this way children are able to absorb the information and instinctively match it to a meaning, rather than memorizing things out of context.
It’s now well known that 0-8 years old is the best time to learn a language. If we miss this golden window of opportunity, chances are the child will have to expend more time and energy. Thus, it’s important to take advantage of this time period as best we can!
For a child starting with no Chinese language background, learning from the simplest Chinese phonetics is the best choice. When they learning these phonetic sounds, we want to make the process as engaging and rewarding for the child as possible, affirming their efforts and encouraging them to continue to try hard. It’s also important to develop children’s natural interest and excitement about what they are doing, emphasizing the effort they put in, rather than establishing a system of reward.
For example, instead of giving your child some candy, or letting them watch a movie, or letting them play with a toy when they’ve learned some Chinese, acknowledge and praise the work that they put in. When children know that you’re paying attention to the fact that they are making effort trying to learn, they will focus themselves on the learning for the sake of it rather than to get rewarded for it.
In the process of learning Pinyin, we can give children a little “temptation”, more encouragement and more affirmation. For example, you can give children a little temptation, if you remember the new Pinyin, there will be a little reward. This reward doesn’t have to be material, it can be a little story that children like, or a little handicraft and soon.
Through studying Chinese, we can cultivate children’s learning habits so they will not worry about what they learn, and will actually come to enjoy the process!
Learning words or grammar patterns in isolation is nearly useless—if we don’t learn how they’re used, then how will we know how to use them? In order for children to grasp language at a deep level, they have to understand the full language environment, because the language environment is what gives a word its meaning, its value, and its function as a tool in the toolbox they are putting together.
From this we can see that in order to teach children to read, we should put words in sentences instead of taking words or phrases as individual units. Sentences provide the context for them, and over time the child will be able to know instinctively which words are appropriate for what situation, and be able to form emotional attachments to the words.
For example, if we want a child to learn the word “玩(wán)” meaning “to play” or “to have fun”, we wouldn’t just hand them a flashcard with “玩” on one side and “play” on the other. Instead, we would give them a full sentence with the word in it, like
wǒ ài wán yóu xì.
我 爱 玩 游 戏。
I love playing games.
If you have also learned some Chinese, then let your child practice with you. After all, the more chances they can get to use what they’ve learned, the better! However, if you are not a native speaker, it’s important to understand that your child is absorbing the language in a different way then you probably did, and it’s important for them to get as much exposure as they can to Chinese in its natural forms. The biggest taboo in language learning is not use the language you are learning!
For this, try going to Chinese friends’ parties or gatherings more often and bring your children along so that they can communicate more in Chinese. Even if you’re the only person there who doesn’t speak Chinese, that’s okay! Remember, the goal is for your child to master the language, and who knows… maybe this will provide some motivation for you to learn, too. After all, the ultimate goal of learning Chinese is to be able to have normal communication in Chinese with other people, to really be able to interact with people for whom the Chinese language and Chinese culture are their own.
Of course, not everyone has access to a community of Chinese speakers or even just Chinese friends, and that’s okay. There are other options for giving your child the opportunities they need to speak Chinese, like Chinese education institutions where they can communicate with teachers one-on-one online, with resources available for whatever level they’re at and study plans to make sure they stay on track. Another advantage of these types of class are their flexibility and convenience, so you can pick a time that works for your child’s schedule, and gives enough leeway to finish homework in between classes.
“Clearing up Confusion Between “zhe 着” and “le 了” for Children to Learn Chinese”
“Quiz and Analysis to the Chinese Measure Words “Zhī 只”, “Tóu 头” and “Gè 个””
”Children’s Guide to Tone Changes of “Yī 一” in Mandarin Chinese”