This week, we’re welcoming a new expert to the Sassy Mama fold; Kate Zhou, Director of Yifan Mandarin and a mum of two herself. She’s here to answer all your questions on Chinese language learning and culture.
In your opinion, what is the ideal age for a non-Chinese speaking child to start learning Chinese?
Numerous researches have shown that when introducing a second language, the earlier in a child’s life you start, the more promising the results. Many suggest that 6 years and younger are the magic years – with neuro-lingistics, psychology and social pressure all playing a part. How well a child actually learns the language is, of course, directly co-related to the frequency of exposure, opportunity for practice and depth of teaching.
I personally always suggest that parents think about what their Chinese language goals are for their kids. Is it native fluency or are they happy with just everyday conversational level?
If it is to achieve native fluency, and neither parents nor caretakers speak Chinese, understand the commitment you will need to put into this. Start as early as possible. Until the age of 18 months, consider hiring a Chinese-speaking nanny. After 18 months, keep the nanny and supplement with Chinese playgroups, while also considering Chinese kindergartens. Select schools that have a Chinese program or are fully bilingual. If one parent speaks Chinese, then that parent should only speak in Chinese to the child.
If it is just to achieve conversational level, a playgroup starting at 12-18 months is ideal. The focus here is on introducing the sounds of the language, gaining a child’s interest and building confidence. Most Mandarin playgroups in the market are designed around songs, rhymes, movement, and – even when flashcards are used – they are in the form of a game. This way, our little students get exposure, become comfortable and don’t even realize they are learning a new language. Keep this up with one or twice a week and perhaps add in some summer programs as they get older.
But remember, we can learn a new language at any age, as long as we are interested and put in the work. So if you have an older child who wants to learn Chinese, don’t be discouraged by the science. Remember, many adults have successfully learned Mandarin!
Got a burning question, mama? Kate is happy to answer your queries on all things language and culture-related so leave your comments below!
Kate Zhou is the founder and director of Yifan Mandarin Ltd, a company offering Mandarin and Cantonese training and Chinese culture consultation services. Yifan’s programmes include the popular ‘Mandarin for Munchkins’, ‘Mandarin for Teens’ and ‘Living Chinese’ classes. Born and educated in Mainland China, Kate is a qualified Mandarin teacher who has worked in China and France, moving to Hong Kong in 1998. She and her French husband have two young children and for their family, Hong Kong is home.