1. Long-term interest is most important
Language acquisition is not easy. Your goal in the long-term is to get your little one to want to converse in English and Mandarin naturally, not by force, so the point is to make it fun and interesting. Children learn best through play, interactions, and experiences relevant to their everyday lives. With language learning, linguists suggest the 30% rule: a child should spend at least 30% of their waking time naturally learning a language, with Early, Constant, and Interactive (ECI) exposure in their learning environment.
2. Immersion works best
An immersion program is to learn by being with native (and non-native) speakers, absorbing the language without any translation. It focuses on how to use a new language to learn rather than just practicing the language. The target language becomes the medium of instruction for learning areas and academic content, hence language acquisition and content studies occur at the same time.
Through an immersion program, a child learns holistically from a cognitive aspect, gains cultural and contextual understanding, social benefits, acquires problem-solving and critical thinking skills in the target language; not limited to the technicalities of a language such as vocabulary, pronunciations, grammars etc. By living life in an immersion environment, children embrace it just as they learn their first language. The Public Library of Science found that those who learned a new language using the immersion method had brain waves similar to those of native speakers when speaking that language. Those who trained with the traditional language class also became more native-like in their brain processing, but only the immersion group showed full native-like processing of the grammar.
3. Study in a Bilingual Immersion school
Ideally learning a new language in the most natural way possible in practice: visiting and immersing in a city that speaks the target language. This is also known as in-country immersion. Though it is not always possible to travel to or live in another country, there are other ways to immerse you or your child in another language. The best way is to study in a Bilingual Immersion school! Regular classes in an immersion school keep a continuance in your child’s learning journey allowing them a place to practice and use the language on a regular basis. Having native teachers and other native students around is also super motivating. As they acquire more vocabulary together with newfound knowledge, they will gain more confidence to speak.
Observation has shown that students in language immersion programs develop “big dreams” for their future, increased confidence, pride, self-efficacy, perseverance, and cognitive flexibility. By learning about the world through various subjects such as science, math, music etc, children is learning the language in various contexts and through natural communication, building up their worldly view and full understanding framework in the target language (hence the focus isn’t pure language and vocabulary).
4. Support English and Mandarin at home as early as possible
Whether there are English and Mandarin speakers at home or not, parents can support their child’s journey to fluency by bringing English and Mandarin to their homes. If at least one parent speaks either language at home, start as early as possible and if that is difficult, dedicate specific time to bond, play games and read stories in both languages, and take holidays in the UK, Mainland China and Taiwan.
5. Apply one person to one language
If you can, apply one person, one language. In order for OPOL to be successful, there needs to be consistency. The earlier you start the better. However, if your child’s dominant language is already established – as early as 1.5 years old — gradually ease English or Mandarin in. Be patient and don’t give up.
If one parent cannot speak Mandarin 100% of the time, designate a particular Mandarin hour such as Mandarin story time, game time, or family time. In this case, the non-Mandarin-speaking family members will all learn together. You can start with 5 minutes and gradually increase the duration; the KEY is to make it ENGAGING.
6. Build a predictable routine at home
Be consistent regarding when, how, and with whom they will use each language, and try to let the minority language get the most exposure and engagement through a consistent routine. For example,
A) Morning English/Cantonese, Afternoon Mandarin
B) Mon/Wed/Fri English/Cantonese, Tue/Thur/Sat/Sun Mandarin
C) Throughout the day English/Cantonese, bedtime stories Mandarin
7. No need for translated learning
Often, seeing a child not understanding immediately, parents and many teachers, will switch to English and explain. This translating works in the short term but children don’t need to build up a cross-reference system like adults do. A child’s brain can simply associate words with context. They build multiple simultaneous streams of comprehension in their head. At its simplest, they don’t see ‘apple’ and translate it into Chinese, they are in ‘Mandarin mode’ and see pinguo. When they learn their first language, there’s nothing to translate from, they learn by interacting and associating words with objects, actions and contexts. This is how they can best learn other languages.
Some parents may have concerns that their child may not understand anything and feel left out in immersion environments. Actually, it is very normal for children to take a little time to get used to any new environment at the beginning. They may not understand everything at first, but as they become engaged in the class and motivated by their new friends, they will gradually pick up the tone, facial expressions, body languages of teachers and other children.
8. Rote learning is generally not ideal for young children
Rote learning can teach phrases and words but without interest and context. Repeating poems or speeches until learnt off by heart can be great for performances, but without understanding context or knowing how to use the words, mastery of the language is much more difficult. Many language classes follow this approach where language is studied through repetition or by focusing on technicalities such as sentence structure and grammar. Most often language schools use translation to achieve faster results by translating to/from another primary language such as English.
9. Get ample support along the way
You cannot do it alone in this long learning journey. Aside from getting support at an immersion school like Mulberry House, join an online parent discussion group focused on raising bilingual/multilingual children such as “Raising bilingual children in Chinese & English” on Facebook.
If there is no Mandarin at home, there are many other ways to supplement. There are many online resources now: Netflix has Mandarin dubbed cartoons, there are youtube channels (including Mulberry House) and digital apps such as LinguPinguin, Quizlet or Pleco. Also learning with your child is hugely motivating and a great opportunity to bond with them.
10. Stay positive for your child’s language acquisition journey
Encourage them to teach you, and show interest in learning with them. We encourage parents to cultivate your child’s growth mindset and keep their learning journey interesting. We have seen children thrive with NO Mandarin at home, coming to an immersion school like Mulberry House regularly, they now speak fluently after just 8-12 months of learning. Be encouraged and motivated that you and your child can be successful.
Mulberry House is an Inquiry Based 100% Mandarin Immersion School, offering premier early childhood education (0-6 Yrs) and IB primary supporting programs (6-12 Yrs). With the children-centered and natural immersion approach, children learn about the world through interactive classes, natural engagement and learning by doing.
Mulberry House is committed to provide stimulating learning opportunities to nurture the infinite potential in each child, setting themselves up for a bright multilingual future with its immersion programs and vibrant environment.
We hope that was helpful. Do feel free to reach out to us when you face challenges and we are happy to provide support to you and your families.