1. What group of children are we talking about?
When we talk about children learning Chinese, we must distinguish between the two groups. On the one hand, we have the native speakers who grow up in a country with a language other than Chinese language but have been in contact with Chinese since birth (actually already in the mother’s belly). Secondly, we have children who learn Chinese as a foreign language after a certain age.
The two groups differ in their needs and learning challenges, which is why the methods of language acquisition differ. In this article, we will focus on the language acquisition of the first group (native speakers). After a brief look at the general difference between the language acquisition of adults and children, in the first part (section 3), we will look at the difficulties encountered by children and their parents. In the second part (section 4), we will look at typical fears of parents and want to help parents to overcome them. We will be happy to answer your questions or continue the topic in another article.
2. Common prejudice: children learn easier than adults
A common prejudice that we often encounter is that children find it easier to learn a foreign language. In fact, in science, it is assumed that we can only acquire a foreign language like a mother tongue up to the age of about six years.
However, it is anything but easy for children. Unlike adults, they cannot translate from another language. Every word has to be understood from scratch. Children experience a lot of frustration when learning a language because, very often, they are not understood and cannot articulate their needs. It is just that children have much more time to learn by trial and error, as they have fewer responsibilities than adults. They learn a lot through imitation and repetition. In addition, there is – at least in toddler age – no pressure from exams, etc.
In contrast to adults, children have fewer inhibitions and dare to imitate all kinds of strange sounds and unknown mouth movements. They also find it very funny here and there when they try out new sounds. In addition to the big hurdles, especially for very young children, they also experience a lot of fun when trying out the language. And this is a critical point: Children experience Chinese as a great language, which they like to speak if they can associate beautiful memories with it. We will go into this crucial aspect further below.
3. What are the challenges facing children whose mother tongue is Chinese in a foreign language country?
Depending on the country and kinship, there are more or less Chinese native speakers in the child’s environment. Overall, however, there are of course far fewer opportunities to speak Chinese in everyday life than in China itself. Last but not least, very few countries have bilingual schools that offer degrees in the national language as well as in Chinese. For this reason, many parents decide to support their children in learning their mother tongue Chinese.
What challenges do children face when they want to learn their mother tongue Chinese in a foreign country?
As simple as it may sound: the children first have to learn to speak Chinese. And how does that work? They need a lot of time with someone who can talk to them and respond to their needs and questions. Now it is getting more difficult because a large part of the parents have to work so that they can afford to earn a living.
When a child goes to kindergarten, there is usually enough time left to play with the child in the afternoon. It is urgently necessary to have many dialogues with the child (although with small children usually only the adult talks ;-). They need to be accompanied to discover the world, and they automatically learn the terms that are necessary to describe everything. It’s really easy, parents only have to put their Smartphone aside more often… and that’s where the difficulty starts ;-)
Parents who send their children to kindergarten all day are different. Here there is not much time left in the afternoon to talk to the child. And then the parents are also exhausted after the long working day. We advise these parents to spend as much time as possible on weekends with their children so that they can speak Chinese with their children regularly while having a good time. After all, it is the positive experiences that ultimately make a (foreign) language strong in the long term.
Here it becomes more difficult because usually, the children learn to read and write at school. And the language learning process runs through all subjects such as mathematics, arts, sports, etc.
What can Chinese parents do in a foreign language country? Either, they can bring their child to a Chinese school nearby (These usually take place on weekends. The children learn reading and writing there with workbooks, usually once a week). Or you have to get appropriate textbooks and work on the materials together with your child. Unfortunately, there’s no way around it.
This is not least one of the reasons why there is the phenomenon of the so-called ABC (American-born Chinese). These are American citizens of Chinese descent, who usually do not know Chinese at all or only to a very limited extent. Learning to read Chinese takes longer than learning to speak, and writing takes even longer than learning to read. This is because passive vocabulary is easier to build than the active one. Parents often underestimate the amount of time they have to give their child to learn to read and write.
It may be a lot of work, but if you give the child the necessary time and accompany him or her as they learn, they will be able to learn to read and write Chinese. To practice reading, you can read stories to the child before going to bed, for example, and use your finger to follow the words. Parents can write characters together with their children. Doing this together makes it easier for the child.
4. What fears do parents have about their children learning Chinese, and how can they deal with them?
In the past ten years, we have met countless parents and children, both in our private and professional lives, with whom we have exchanged ideas about raising or growing up with Chinese. We have encountered similar fears of parents again and again. In the following, we would like to share the most common of these with you.
- “My child can do much less than the children of my friends/acquaintances in China!”
Chinese parents are often in contact with friends and relatives living in China. They automatically compare how good their children are in Chinese. However, it is often forgotten that their children also speak the national language! In principle, your children learn twice as much or more. Only reduced to the Chinese language is, of course, less. It is quite normal that the language levels of each language are different for bilingual or multilingual people. Parents should not expect their children to be as good in Chinese as they are in the local language. This also takes the pressure off themselves.
- “I am afraid that my child cannot speak the national language well!”
Often parents who are both Chinese are afraid that their child will not learn the national language well. Therefore, they decide that one of the parents will speak the national language with the child, just like in bilingual families. However, if the child attends a daycare center at the age of three at the latest, this fear is unfounded.
It is undoubtedly hard for the children when they come to the daycare center and don’t understand a word. But toddlers play together without words. So the child will quickly make friends, and it will not have any difficulties to absorb the language spoken there quickly. You will be surprised how quickly this happens!
It is strongly recommended that parents speak as much Chinese as possible. By the time they enter school at the latest, the child will speak the national language increasingly. If he or she is not used to Chinese being spoken at home by then, likely, he or she will not respond to you in Chinese.
- “My child always answers in the national language and not in Chinese!”
Unfortunately, we have to tell these parents that they were probably not consistent enough. At some point, the children will automatically speak the language predominantly they encounter in everyday life. The bigger the child is, the more difficult it is to change this fact. Parents should, therefore, try to show the child from a very early age that it can only be understood when it speaks Chinese. Parents can ignore it if he or she speaks in the local language. Or, for example, always ask in Chinese: “What did you say?” until the child answers in Chinese. If you repeat this often, the children will ask/answer in Chinese. You only have to be persistent :-)
This problem occurs more often with parents where only one parent is Chinese, and the national language is spoken at home. Parents are advised to coordinate well with each other in this case. For example, the child could only have a particular wish fulfilled if he or she asked the Chinese parent in Chinese. Children know exactly when there are limits or loopholes.
- “Chinese lessons must be like school, playing is no good!”
Unfortunately, we often experience that, especially in Chinese lessons for children, a kind of classroom scenario is pursued. Like in school, the teaching scenario is based on textbooks. No matter if private teacher, online teacher, or a weekend school. Unfortunately, many Chinese parents also believe that the Chinese can only be taught in this way. If you observe the children in one of the Chinese schools during the breaks, you can see that the children play together speaking the local language. Why is that so?
Emotions are of enormous importance for the language acquisition of children. Adults know that too. However, adults can discipline themselves differently and think more abstractly than children. For children, activities – such as playing in the break – are fun in life. They use the language they have learned. In the national language, they have a life outside school. And at every moment they use the national language. In class, no emotional attachment to the language develops. Even if there are sounds and pictures. Two examples:
The teacher holds up a picture with a cup of cocoa and plays an audio file, like the sound of sipping a cup of cocoa. Then maybe there is a song about cocoa. The whole thing is accompanied by a video where a cup of cocoa dances funny. Then the child is allowed to play a game at the tablet, where it has to catch a cup of cocoa.
Interactive? Active learning with all senses? Counterexample:
A child listens to a story that is read aloud by mommy/papa. He or she is cuddling up with mummy/daddy under a soft blanket and drinks a cup of cocoa. The smell of chocolate and milk is in the air. Mama/Papa says it is cocoa. This environment builds up new neural connections and makes the word cocoa a warm feeling in the heart.
Of course, this example cannot be applied to all kinds of learning content. But it expresses an important aspect: Using the Chinese language in activities with people you like (friends, acquaintances, family, nanny, children in a language club, etc.) not only helps the child to remember the language better but above all makes the child enjoy using the language. Because the older a child becomes in a foreign language country, he or she needs an emotional connection to the mother tongue to have a motivation to continue using it.