This post’s question is, “How did you and your daughter learn Chinese?”
Another great question! If you are going to live in China, you will want to learn the language. First of all, you will really want to be able to communicate in order to simply take care of yourself. Relying on others to help you shop, buy plane tickets, and tell the taxi where to go is very discouraging. And you’d hate to waste the opportunity of being in an all-Chinese speaking environment and not learn at least some Chinese.
So this is how we did it. You may choose another path. And other paths may get to the same destination. But these are the three factors that what worked for us.
- Language Tutors
- Positive Environment
- Chinese Made Easier curriculum
1. Language Tutors
For Sprite and myself, we always used tutors who could not speak English. In this way we were forced to learn the Chinese. Yes, there were many, many times we had no idea what was going on. And I spent a lot of my lesson time flipping through the dictionary to look up words. But we eventually learned.
This is the immersion technique, and I am a huge fan of it. (This is the way all children learn their own mother language, by the way.)
Another plus to using a non-English speaker is that you can be assured that your tutor is truly interested in seeing you master Mandarin and is not merely using you to learn English. For Sprite’s college student teachers (who all are learning English), I always made it plain upfront that they were not to speak any English with Sprite. Sometimes Sprite would tell me that a teacher was using her lesson time to ask her how to say something in English or asking her to read an English passage outloud. I generally dismissed those teachers if they continued such behavior.
Sprite came to China at age 3, so her lessons were actually playtime. I had to work hard with the tutors to help them understand that I didn’t want them to lecture or write characters. They didn’t need to plan lessons or bring materials. Their job was simply to expose Sprite to a rich, oral Mandarin environment, speaking constantly as they interacted with her, using the books and toys in her own bedroom. This did not come easy for some of the tutors we used. The best tutors were those girls who enjoyed children, were very verbal, and had a positive demeanor. Critical teachers were dismissed immediately. (We’ve had our share of horror stories over the years. One teacher even slapped Sprite and tried to choke her!) Each time we started with a new tutor, I spent a lot of time explaining my expectations and reinforcing those over the first few weeks of lessons. Once the teachers understood that I wasn’t expecting Sprite to pass some sort of test, they relaxed and learned to enjoy the freedom of this fun style of learning.
2. Positive Environment
Our entire family was studying Mandarin at the same time, and actually, the learning goes on even after seven years. Sprite’s dad and I always expressed fascination of the language. We were honest about our frustrations and mistakes, too. And all of that worked together to create an environment that valued the hard work involved in learning a second language. You can read more about that at this Heart of the Matter article —Building a Foundation for Bilingual Learners.
3. Chinese Made Easier curriculum
Chinese Made Easier curriculum is practical, using real life Chinese that you will actually use. Pinyin is used throughout the book, and characters are implemented slowly, giving you a chance to learn them bit by bit. Usually each lesson will have ten characters to learn. The grammar lessons and exercises are well designed to help you apply the vocabulary you learn into proper usage patterns.
My husband and I both like using flashcards to learn words. We buy blank business card papers from those little advertising shops for about 4 RMB per box. They are the perfect size for flashcards. A stack of these is perfect for studying while traveling on a bus.
I also devised a visual method for learning tones. It was especially helpful when I was just starting. I chose four different colors of highlighers and color coded the tones on my flashcards. The reasoning for my color choices was logical to me, but you’d have to make it work for your own mind.
- First tone — yellow (the sun, high and bright)
- Second tone –red (lady with a red dress, the eyebrows go up, a whistle goes up in admiration)
- Third tone — blue (waves on water, up and down)
- Fourth tone — green (a plant rooted firmly in the ground)
Actually, there is so much more that could be said about learning Chinese. But I hope these tips from our own experience will help set you on your own path of language learning.
It’s a most humbling yet rewarding journey. I can remember wanting to shout out to those around me, “I am an educated person! I have a master’s degree!” when I was frustrated by my preschool level Mandarin. It was not merely an academic task, but a real spiritual test of humility to learn a second language. I wish you the best on your own journey of the heart and the head.