Mandarin Chinese is the most spoken language in the world (followed by Spanish, and then English), with over 1 billion speakers in Mainland China alone. Many experts say that China will likely be the biggest economy in the world this century, and because of this, many parents and schools are encouraging their children to learn Chinese. In fact, Mandarin language programs in US schools have increased by 100% in the last 2 years, according to “Asia Society,” a non-for-profit educational group that promotes understanding among the people and institutions of the US and Asia. The US Department of Defense has classified Mandarin as a “critical foreign language” and in 2007-2008 put about $10 million into Chinese-language programs, from grade schools through colleges (see this article in USA Today for more information). The largest Chinese program in the US, the Chicago Public Schools, started teaching Mandarin in 1999 and now has 8000 students studying the language, in 30+ schools (with 30 more schools on a waiting list to begin).
Introduction and Incorporating Geography
Begin your language learning journey by hanging a world map at eye-level for your child. Show them where China is, and teach them to locate it and Asia on the map. In my children’s Chinese class the teacher pointed out that the outline of China looks like a rooster (a profile with its head to the right)- and they have always remembered this. Point out the landforms (the mountain ranges such as the Himalayas, the Gobi Desert, Turpan Basin, Yangtze River, the coastline etc). Show them where the Great Wall runs through the north, and which countries and bodies of water border the country.
Look for a Class Near You
There are several different routes to finding a class for your children. First, there are private language academies in many cities and towns that offer Mandarin class for kids (google languages classes + your hometown). We have taken a couple of these classes, and they are very fun, spoken only in the target language (obviously in this case, Mandarin), taught my native speakers, and include a lot of songs. The disadvantage here is that they are usually very expensive. When you have 4 kids, like we do, this option is quite cost-prohibitive.
The second option is to look for a “Chinese school.” In many, many towns and cities, the Chinese community has set up a weekend school to ensure that their children are learning Chinese despite living in a non-Chinese-speaking country. We have found and chosen this option in 2 different states (in the US) and have enjoyed having our children learn “Chinese as a Second Language.” The slight disadvantage of this option is that many times the kids in their classes actually speak some Chinese because their parents speak it at home; because of this, the lessons sometimes move quickly. However, our solution is just to have our kids repeat year 1, and the second time through they “got it” much faster. If you cannot find one in your town, look to the nearest “Chinatown.” Our newest classes are in a Chinese Community Center, and have teachers who are all certified, and have taught in China. Finally, if none of these options work, another option is to look for someone in your community who is a native speaker, who might be willing to tutor your kids for an hour a week, at least to start them on the right path. Our friends have hired a high school student to come once a week for a reasonable price and help their child do their Chinese homework from their Saturday school. It turned out that this young girl also liked to babysit, so now they do their weekly tutoring while mom and dad go out for dinner- not a bad deal for anyone!:)
The following resources that I list below are materials that I have personally used (except the few exceptions that I explain below). I have not been paid by anyone, nor been given free copies to review- these are my personal opinions of products that I have chosen to use with my children.
Begin to Play Chinese Songs & Rhymes
I love the Speak & Sing Chinese with Mei Mei and Me CD and keep it in my car. Each lesson teaches some vocabulary (Numbers, Parts of the Body, Action Words, Greetings, Family, Names and Ages, Parent Talk) and then includes a song or 2 using the new words. The teacher (Mei Mei) will ask the kids to act out the Chinese words, or count with her- and I hear my kids repeating it in the back of our minivan. Since Chinese is a tonal language (every syllable either rises, falls, falls and rises in the same syllable, or stays flat), the kids need to hear native speakers pronouncing the different words slowly, and repeated multiple times. This CD does just that. Another CD that we play in the background of our car is Baby’s First Words in Chinese. Although it says it was made for newborns-toddlers, the rhymes, songs, and lullabies along with the coo-ing parents is pleasant and easy to listen to. Research has shown that when young children are exposed to different languages as they learn their first language, their ears are tuned it to hear the different tones and pronunciation nuances.
Or listen to Chinese songs and rhymes on-line.
Watch DVDs (or youtube!)
Fortunately we have always lived in an area with a well-stocked library. Because of this, we have taken out and seen numerous DVDs that teach Mandarin vocabulary. If you do not have access do these DVDs, watch these clips to learn Chinese from youtube. Note: I have seen DVDs promise to “teach” Chinese- note that your child will not become bilingual, or even a proficient communicator from only watching DVDs. That being said, I have experienced that my kids really improve their vocabulary, and sometimes even their pronunciation, by listening and watching these educational DVDs. Also, if you limit TV and screentime like I do, my kids are so excited to watch anything on TV they sit mesmerized and hang on every word. The following are videos we have personally seen- though there are many more out there to preview with your children:
Follow Jade: Learn Chinese: Let’s Go to Market in China- The teacher, Jade, teaches different lessons using real props. Watch a sample clip here.
The last DVD is Little Pim Chinese. This is the only DVD I am mentioning that I have not personally used with my children (though I have asked my library to purchase it for their collection!). However I am including it because I have friends who tell me that their children absolutely love this little panda, the music is gentle and catchy, and they would recommend it above all other DVDs. Sounds like I need to try it:). Watch a sample clip here.
Play On-line Games
There are many different on-line games to practice Mandarin. Here is one to practice Chinese Vocabulary. And another, from PBSkids, to match Chinese characters to pictures of their meanings. The BBC language learning site has lots of on-line activities for kids (and adults!).
Although this is not a game, this is a great web site, with lists of vocabulary in Mandarin. When you roll your mouse over the word (or number) it pronounces it for you and shows you the pinyin and the Chinese characters. Many, many of my kids’ vocabulary words are on here, which helps us figure out how to pronounce them.
Read Books that Show Chinese Characters
Chinese is a “character-based language”, so the words almost always had some graphical basis in the items or ideas they represent. The first 3 books I list here embed Chinese characters into the story and illustrations.
Liu and the Bird: A Journey in Chinese Calligraphy by Catherine Louis, Feng Xiao Min, and translated by Sibylle Kazeroid. The beautiful illustrations help to tell the story of a young girl going to visit her grandfather- with a lot of Chinese characters built into the journey. We liked being able to see how the characters evolved, many times resembling the word they represent.
The Pet Dragon: A Story about Adventure, Friendship, and Chinese Characters by Christoph Niemann (Author, Illustrator). This story also integrates Chinese characters into the more simple illustrations, as Lin looks for her lost dragon. My kids really liked the story, and I liked that the book introduced the kids to many cultural icons from China, such as the Great Wall of China.
In the Leaves by Huy Voun Lee, is another story that shows Chinese characters to kids in a simple lesson. Xiao Ming and his friends take a trip to a farm, and he shows them the different characters for sights they see. Huy Voun Lee has written several similar books for different settings such as In the Snow, At the Beach, 1, 2, 3, Go!, and In the Park. Each book contains about 10 characters woven into the story and the cut-paper illustrations are works of art.
My Little Book of Chinese Words (English and Mandarin Chinese Edition) by Catherine Louis (Illustrator), Shi Bo (Illustrator), and translated by MaryChris Bradley. This compact, beautifully illustrated book is like a bound set of flashcards. Each page has one word, with its written Chinese character. I was surprised (and delighted) one day when my 6 year old son and his friend spent their whole playdate copying characters out of this book into a notebook! His mom later asked me if I was teaching them Chinese, and unfortunately I had to admit that I had nothing to do with their creative project.
The last resource I do not personally own. I do have a friend who swears by these flashcards, and I am thinking of getting them for my kids now that they are learning how to read. The
Tuttle Chinese for Kids Flash Cards Kit comes with an audio CD to help with pronunciation. This mom of 2 says that her children enjoy the cards, and have learned some characters with them.
For the Parents
The Office of Chinese Language Council International, called Hanban (literally “Chinese Office”), is in charge of promoting Chinese worldwide by creating textbooks and materials for all ages, training teachers and setting up Confucius Institutes. There are about 100 Confucius Institutes around the world, which promote Chinese language, literature and culture. They can help point you in the right direction for resources in your region.
I have only tried the podcasts, which I honestly enjoyed! The topics are really interesting, and include cultural aspects as well as language.
Finally, here is an on-line dictionary that will translate anything from English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, Polish, Russian, and Catalan into Mandarin, and give the pinyin, Chinese characters, and pronunciation.
My last advice: HAVE FUN and don’t get frustrated. With practice, kids will begin to pick up the words and sounds of their new language- and one day they will surprise you. If you have a favorite resource that I have missed, please leave it in the comment section- we are always looking for new materials at our house!