Once upon a time, there were few resources available for children learning Mandarin Chinese as a second language. Fortunately this problem has been addressed by a number of publishers and now the opposite situation prevails – there are so many resources available it can be difficult to choose between them. As a teacher of Chinese-as-a-second-language who raises my own child in a bi-lingual household, I have found a few tips that can help you choose programs and products that are worth your money and time.
Tip one – identify your learning goals and then select materials and classes that fit those goals. There is no one product, teacher or class that will suite every student’s need. You should set goals that are realistic and divide them into short, medium and long term objectives. In a nutshell, goals should be subject to achievable end dates, be relevant to your child and family, and be measurable.
Realistic goal = achievable end date + relevance + ability to measure
Tip two – when selecting a teacher and a program to meet your goals, take the time to visit the class and talk with the teacher. Ask him or her to outline the program goals and see how they fit with yours. A good program and teacher should have more than a text book; the program should be built around objectives that are easy to explain and understand. Ask about the rationale for the objectives. Good programs are both progressive and spiral allowing for a review of previously learned material while introducing new content.
You will likely find an emphasis on one or two skills over the other skills (listening, speaking, reading
and writing). How are the goals for each skill determined at different ages and levels? Is there a different program for native speaking children versus Chinese-as-second-language children? You may find a heavy emphasis on learning the writing system. This is something to question in Chinese-as-second-language (CSL) programs. Although all four skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing need to be taught, the last two will take significantly more time to develop than the former. Depending on the age of your child, he or she may not be developmentally ready to start work on literacy before learning to think and speak in the language.
Tackling all four skills at the same time is a complex task in any language. In Mandarin, it is a particular challenge given the time needed to learn to read and write characters. A second concern is the use of phonetic systems to teach pronunciation. There are two main systems in use – pinyin and zhuyinfuhao. Both have advantages and disadvantages. All students should eventually learn pinyin but not necessarily as the first step to learning Mandarin. For young CSL children who have not yet developed reading skills at the 3rd grade level in English, pinyin can cause phonemic confusion. Therefore, children below this age should be taught characters only or the zhuyinfuhao system.
There is no correct answer to the question – Simplified versus Traditional characters. Starting with either is fine. Many teachers will have adamant views on this question but in reality if you and your child study Chinese for an extended period, you will be exposed to both and will need to develop some proficiency with both character sets. Is one really easier than the other – yes and no. Traditional characters are easier to see the history and understand their development over time which can be an aid in learning to recognize them. Simplified characters are easier to learn to write.
Do you need to learn to write or to type characters? Again instructors will have strong views on this question. The answer goes back to your personal goals. What do you need to do? Write letters to friends or type and text? If you live in the US, the Advanced Placement Chinese exam may provide an answer – it is a typewritten exam and students must know how to type in Chinese to sit for the exam. If you live in Australia, handwriting is required as part of the national curriculum. If you live in Asia and want to take the HSK exams, handwriting will be required.
Tip three – look for methods that work with your child’s learning style and needs. When you observe the teacher and the classroom, do you see a fit with your child’s age and developmental level? Are there visual aids, toys, opportunities for interaction through play? Is the classroom designed for older students but used for teaching young children? Are the children engaged with the teacher and the methods used? A preschool age child will not learn effectively by sitting at a desk, just as a teenager will not want to sit on the carpet and play with toys. The classroom, learning tools, and teaching methods need to be age and developmental level appropriate.
Tip four – look at the materials in terms of ease of use outside the classroom. Are the textbooks, handouts, CDs, computer programs and homework materials suitable to your goals, your child’s age and developmental level? Is there a mismatch such as a college textbook featuring situations and vocabulary a young child cannot relate to? The opposite is situation is not necessarily a negative – older students can successfully use materials designed for younger students, but these materials may not be well received by a teen.
Tip five – when choosing your own materials, look for content you can access without the help of a teacher. Does the book, CD, computer program or DVD have pinyin pronunciation as well as characters available? Is a glossary or vocabulary list included? Is there an introduction, explanation or guide to using the material? Is the material suitable to your level? If you can figure out the meaning from the pictures or the video, this is a good product. You don’t need a full translation to use a resource, you just need a product that facilitates your use. I select audio/visual material where students can understand 65-75% or more of the content. If the material is a textbook, does it include audio or video files you can use to hear as well as read? Avoid purchasing materials that are too difficult, instead collect resources that are at your level and just above. Before buying a DVD, watch some of the content and see how much you or your child can understand. If you have a teacher using multi-media, ask if they will provide vocabulary lists and resources you can use at home to help you when watching/listening/using outside of class.
Finally, go with your gut. If you don’t feel right about a teacher, program or product, don’t buy it. Try something else. It may take a while to find the right fit, but in the end it will be worth it. Remember, no teacher, program or product is right for every student. You will need a mix of resources to meet your goals.
Author: Anne Martin-Montgomery, MA, MSc
Founder & Director Chinese for Families