While most Singaporeans are bilingual in both English and their mother tongue, not all may be as proficient in both languages.
In fact, many parents who speak English as their first language may face difficulties when it comes to teaching their children their mother tongue.
If you’re a fellow parent struggling to keep up with the school syllabus, let alone make learning Chinese enjoyable for your child, you’re not alone.
We spoke to three Singaporean parents about the challenges they face when teaching their children Chinese, as well as how they got their young ones to understand the importance of the language.
“We don’t use Chinese much at home so it’s a bit foreign to them”
Emily, 37, confesses that it has been a bit of a challenge teaching Chinese to her two children as her husband and her “don’t speak much Chinese at home”.
Like so many other English-speaking households, she says that this is the main reason why her two children - who are seven and four - “are not familiar and hence lack confidence in the language”.
Despite this, Emily encourages her children to speak Mandarin in school whenever possible so that they can practice.
“People in Singapore speak a variety of languages, and to be able to communicate with all of them, (my children) need to be flexible with languages.”
She also tries to make the Chinese learning process fun for her children by telling them stories of how certain Chinese characters evolved from pictograms. For example, the character 目 (which means sight) looks like an eye.
Because her household is predominantly English speaking, she is worried that her children may not be able to keep up with the pace of learning Chinese in school, adding that the language is “a bit foreign to them”.
Given that the Chinese language looks to be “very important” in the future, Emily also states that she may consider sending her children to Chinese language tuition classes or online learning platforms.
“The syllabus in school has changed so much”
For Joanne, a homemaker in her 40s, speaking Mandarin has been an issue when it comes to getting her Primary 4 son, Gabriel, to learn Chinese.
“We have days where we speak and read Chinese books only but very often, between his sister and him, they will continue to speak in English. I have to remind him by making sure he replies in Mandarin.”
While Joanne was able to implement a speak Mandarin rule in the household during Gabriel’s pre-school and lower primary school years, she confesses that Gabriel has since started “flouting” the rule this year with “almost zero” Mandarin now.
She adds that because Gabriel’s Chinese teacher once called her about his progress and made some negative remarks, learning the subject has “gotten even harder”.
Despite this, one way Joanne helps Gabriel understand the importance of the Chinese language is by stressing the importance of communicating with his grandparents and remembering his roots.
“We told him that his race is Chinese and he might be mocked if he doesn’t understand a word of Chinese. If he has a chance to work in an MNC overseas (when he grows up), knowing Chinese might also be an advantage as he could get a higher pay because he’s effectively bilingual.”
Apart from this, Joanne has also introduced Gabriel to ‘新谣’ (Singaporean Mandopop) songs in order to make learning Chinese fun, and told him about how this group of Chinese enthusiasts started S-pop.
While Joanne considers herself effectively bilingual, she says that she “definitely needs help” when it comes to teaching Gabriel Chinese as the “syllabus in school has changed so much” since her time.
However, she maintains that Chinese is currently the only subject Gabriel is consistently attending extra classes for not because he is struggling, but so that he is constantly in the know and mastery of the language, lest he forgets and regresses.
“One of the biggest challenges in helping Chinese stay enjoyable is self-control on our part not to push the language too hard or anxiously on our children”
According to Xin Tian, 33, she and her husband Irvin began introducing the Chinese language to their older son, Joshua, when he was around three years old.
“It wasn't easy as he was very conversant and comfortable in English by then and didn't want us speaking in Mandarin to him because it felt very unnatural.”
Perhaps as a result of this, they decided to include Mandarin in their communication with their younger son, Jonathan, from birth.
“Now that he (Jonathan) is beginning to pick up speech rapidly, we intentionally speak more Mandarin. It has also encouraged our older son to learn along.”
Because both Xin Tian and Irvin communicate entirely in English with one another, including Mandarin in their family life has also taken them a lot of intentionality.
“As a start, we introduced the Chinese language at specific times/routines of the day (such as greetings or bath time or lunch time). Irvin and I have also begun speaking more in Mandarin to one another.”
Another way Xin Tian helps make the learning process fun for her boys is via Chinese picture books and music.
“Our boys love stories and reading. The pictures help them to understand the story and pick up the context in which the words are used. We try to include books with words that can be used in our everyday life. Music is also another much loved way of including the language in our home environment.”
Despite this, Xin Tian admits that “one of the biggest challenges” in helping Chinese stay enjoyable is “self-control on our part not to push the language too hard or anxiously on our children”.
When asked if they would consider outside help if Chinese becomes too much of a difficulty for their two boys (who are now two and four years old) in the future, Xin Tian says they may.
However, the help they are likely to engage would be for “the purpose of a Chinese-speaking and Chinese-cultured environment.”
“Perhaps something that involves them in the Chinese arts and culture, such as drama, music, calligraphy, painting, or martial arts, etc.”
To this, Xin Tian adds that “well-chosen movies and TV series can actually be really helpful”.
At the end of the day, Xin Tian and Irvin hope for the Chinese language to be something “deeply meaningful, beautiful and enjoyed” by their children.
“It would be a pity for a language to be reduced to a box that needs to be ticked.”
Use LingoAce to help your child learn Chinese in a fun and interactive way
As all three interviewees have shared, It’s no surprise that most parents wish to provide the best and most enjoyable experience for their children when it comes to learning Chinese.
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This sponsored article by LingoAce made this writer wish she could have learnt Chinese in a more fun and interactive way growing up.
Top image via Jerry Wang on Unsplash