Getting Kids to Learn Chinese in Australia

According to legend, there is a mystical place in Perth where highly skilled pugilists are willing to train your children for a fee. I was told it was at a hidden crevice in Leeming Mountain. Every weekend, hordes of Singaporean parents will travel the precarious paths to send their children to learn from the masters. They have a common goal - to hear their kids speak some words in Mandarin, for that please them to no end.

Like any school, it produces great students and duds. I wonder if the Singaporean parents have a Plan B if their kids - god forbid! - became one of the duds. Unlikely, because for this bunch, Plan A is not allowed to fail.

I am writing this because Joy of Melbourne texted me for any tips to teach her daughter some Chinese. She sent me a video of her little girl reciting a verse from a popular nursery rhyme in Mandarin. In the background, was the voice of (presumably) Joy prompting the her along in perfect Mandarin. By the end of it, the little girl looked mighty pleased.

If you ask me, that was a demonstration of all the ingredients necessary to get a child speak her mother's tongue. They call it that for a reason. If the mother is not incline to use the second language to communicate with her child on regular basis, no amount of lessons will help. Any child growing up in Australia will be dominantly overexposed to English in every possible channel of communication. Thus, speaking the language well will never be an issue. The problem is not restricted to Chinese. A quick check with my Afghan and Sri Lankan colleagues returned the same observations. Their children are practically communicating in English with friends despite knowing a little of their respective home languages. This highlights the usage of the mother's tongue at home being the bare minimum parents have to do if they are serious about equipping their children with a second language.

Back to the video Joy sent me, I believe the essence is all in it. First the child has to enjoy it. Any pressure on the kid, or laughing in amusement at their poor attempts, they'll zip up and refuse to use it anymore. Singing is natural to young children and they learn languages very quickly through singing. Regular karaoke in Mandarin can do wonders. Parents have to be patient to explain the meaning of the words she can speak but know not to use them, to build up their confidence to use it to express themselves. Grandparents should be discouraged from accommodating the kids by communicating to them with their half-fuck English. On the contrary, it'll spur the child on to use the language to speak to the overseas grandparents they love, since there is no two ways about it.

At some point, I gave up and accepted that Albany will never speak in Mandarin, since Jen uses English with her most of the time. There was one incident that changed my mind. Jen and I were conserving in Mandarin as usual, in Albany's presence. She asked me a question, “要不要带大的去?” (should we bring "the big one" along?) 

To our surprise, Albany turned at us and asked, "You mean me?"

It was then we realised it is still possible for a child to absorb a little if she is exposed to it. So, we made up our minds to use the language not just between ourselves but involve her whenever possible. By now, she can do (very) basic communication in Mandarin. Since elder siblings tend to have pride in showing the younger ones the ropes, I encourage Albany to talk or give instruction to her little brother, never mind he has been completely oblivious to it. There is certainly room for improvement. As long as we don't turn her off by forcing it onto her, I believe she will be open in learning and getting better. 

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