Have you ever wondered why there were a lot of research that says people who are bilingual perform better in many cognitive tasks including conflict management? That’s because in order to maintain the relative balance between two languages, the bilingual brain’s language systems are always active and competing by practicing cognitive abilities such as attention and inhibition.
Recent research has found that young children may learn Chinese, or any other second language, by utilizing the same building blocks—and developmental process—that babies use when first learning to speak. However, young children enjoy a much faster acquisition rate for new languages. They’re much quicker than babies, and, in many ways, more adept than big folks, too!
Taking advantage of this ‘window of opportunity’ is especially critical in Chinese learning for young children (4-9 years old). As in our center, Zhou’s Studio, we emphasize interactive approaches in learning Chinese and not just spoon feeding. We attempts to integrate analytical, imaginative, language skills into each activity. This way, the child not only has a better chance of grasping information, but also trains all parts of the brain to work together.
As parents we can try some of the interactive ways to teach our kids at home.
Step 1: Speaking
Always follow the rules of thumbs: Practice makes perfect.
To those parents who can speak Chinese (most of the Singaporean parents falls into this category), do encourage bilingual at home and not just purely speaking in English. Do speak to our children in Chinese more often at home since young. The interest in learning this language will be slowly cultivated and they will not feel awkward to speak in Mandarin wherever they are.
Another effective approach is through role-playing games at home. It depends on the proficiency of the children in Mandarin; they can speak from a simple 2 liners to 10 liners during a short play. Parents can dress them up in simple costumes like putting up a hat, a scarf etc. During the simple role-playing, children are actively acquiring speaking skills at different aspects. We do integrate this approach in our pre-school programs as well and children love it.
Step 2: Reading
Reading Chinese books to kids extensively is a great way to expand their vocabularies. Further, because reading is individualized, please choose the materials in their interests. Extensive reading is aimed at increasing their exposure to Chinese, consolidating previously learned and enforced their understanding on the language at different aspects. That’s why we have a series of books for our Kindergarten 1 and Kindergarten 2 kids to learn every week and encourage parents to read with them at least twice a week with them.
Another effective ways to learn individual Chinese characters are using flash cards to play games, i.e. memory games, guessing games etc. At Zhou’s Studio, we do adopt the different “flash cards” games to enhance speaking ability among the small kids and “speaking out loud” games for Primary 1 to Primary 3 children.
Step 3: Writing
This is crucial and is the most challenging for the young children. Most of the recent new Primary 1 students which we have seen in our center hardly follow the correct strokes of writing Chinese characters. It was quite shocking for us. For us, we enforce our kindergarten kids not only to write nicely but with the correct sequence of strokes (笔画). By knowing how to write correct sequence of the strokes, they increase their proficiency in writing the Chinese characters independently and will boost their confidence in learning Mandarin at a later stage. By knowing this difference, the pre-schoolers in the Zhou’s Studio have been writing quite complicated words which are beyond their level very well.
Our children don’t have to be “gifted” to learn a Mandarin, but as parents we should know the smart ways about how they learn it.