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How to help your child learn Chinese (1)

children learning chinese, chinese language

How do I find child appropriate instruction and/or materials to help my child learn Mandarin?

These are very important questions for any parent who has decided to raise their child in a bilingual household. Fortunately, there is not one "right" answer to either question. There is no magic bullet, no perfect teacher, no product or environment that will suit all needs. Instead, you will find a growing marketplace with more choices available than at any time in the past – and this is a good thing.

Navigating a vast marketplace

So, how do you navigate this vast marketplace? Do you need a guide, an expert to take you through? No, the very first step is one you do right at home within your family. Make a list of goals – short term, medium term and long term. These goals have one critical requirement – they must be realistic.

In order to be realistic, goals must have near term end dates that are achievable, they must be relevant to those engaged in working toward those goals, and they must be measurable.

Realistic goal = achievable end date + relevance + ability to measure

Now you are asking, "how do I set realistic goals when I don't really know what I am doing? I can't possibly do this by myself."

Well, yes you can. Only you can decide what the goals are for your family. No external teacher, expert, publisher or sales person should tell you what you need. This decision is too personal to rely solely on an outside voice.

How to set realistic goals

Let's look at how to set short, medium and long term goals.

For example, many parents begin with goals that do not meet these criteria.

For the purpose of this blog post, we will use the following to illustrate how to set realistic goals.

Sample "unrealistic" goal: "I want my 3 year old son to become fluent in Mandarin so he can be a successful businessman."

This is not a realistic goal for the following reasons:


The sample goal lacks relevance for a 3 year old child. Children this age are learning how to share and get along with other children, how to take turns, how to express their emotions using words. A 3 year old boy wants to grow up to be a fireman, race car driver, dinosaur, or his dad. A 3 year old girl wants to be a princess, a mommy, or Dora the Explorer. The point is that children are learning the social rules through play at this age, not working toward future careers.

A relevant goal for a 3 year old is to learn the sentence patterns and vocabulary to engage in imaginative play around a subject of interest to the child. For instance, learning to play a Fireman can include – the names of the clothes and equipment, colors, safety and precautions about fire, verbs about putting out a fire, climbing a ladder to save a kitten from a tree, bravery and service to others, words about heroes, working together, sharing and taking turns to get a job done. These tasks fit within the universe of a 3 year old child and are therefore relevant. They involve activities that interest and engage young children. Finally they involve imagination, play, age appropriate vocabulary and will interest boys and girls.

Ability to measure

The sample goal cannot be measured. How do you define fluency? Is it the ability to use 2 or more languages equally? For instance, a doctor "fluent" in three languages may not be proficient in all medical terminology/procedures in each language. She may be more proficient in one language than another depending on the subject. Depending on the age when she learned each language, where she went to school, the language of instruction and the professional journals she reads, she will be stronger in one language than the others depending on the subject area. Fluency can be defined in different ways for different people.

A measureable goal is one that can be evaluated through objective means. For instance, if the lesson on how to be a Fireman includes 10 sentence patterns, 25 vocabulary words, and one song, the 3 year old child can be evaluated for listening comprehension and speaking ability. The child can be given tasks where they demonstrate comprehension by performing tasks. "Where are the helmets?" The child would be expected to show the teacher where the helmets are.

Next the teacher would ask the child to "pick up the red helmet and put it on the blue truck." This is a multi-step command to evaluate comprehension. In this example the child must identify a helmet of a specific color and place that object on top of a truck of a specific color. The teacher could then ask the child a question to evaluate speaking ability such as "what color, is it big/small, do you like it?" An older child can be evaluated on reading and writing those patterns and words. Evaluations can and should be designed to meet the age and developmental level of each student.

For a 3 year old, picking up the red helmet and placing it on the blue truck is a good comprehension test even if the child is not yet verbal in the classroom. Singing the song with actions (putting on the helmet, jacket, climbing the ladder, saving the kitty, putting out the fire with a hose) is another way to evaluate comprehension.

Achievable end date

The sample goal is too broad and poorly defined to set an achievable end date.

By contrast, if a parent wanted to learn to play an age appropriate game with their child in the first month of class, this can be achieved. It is a realistic goal that can be measured with an achievable end point.


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