Time for a Learning Mandarin Chinese Q & A

My children have been learning Mandarin Chinese since they were each just five years old. Thus, my daughter has been studying the language for 10 years. In May, she plans to take the AP exam in Chinese Language and Culture.

When we officially began homeschooling in 2007, one of the major driving forces behind our decision was my daughter’s desire to learn Chinese. I have periodically shared with you a little about their journey to fluency in Mandarin. Several years ago, I detailed How I Teach Mandarin Chinese, Not Speaking it Myself and have highlighted a few products or curricula that we have had the opportunity to work with.

Today I would like to answer a few questions that I am often asked by my readers and by people in my social circles when they learn of our decision to learn Mandarin.

learning mandarin q&aDo you think a private tutor for Mandarin is best?

My great grandparents emigrated to the United States in the late 1800s. Somewhere along the way, the ability to speak Norwegian had been lost – at least amongst my family here in the US. As we are in contact with our Norwegian cousins and the Norwegian culture is so strong in my family, I have always wanted to learn the language. I’ve used CDs and textbook programs but my pronunciation is poor. I can read and write far more than I can speak or understand orally.

As I do not speak Mandarin, I wanted to assure that my children would learn the correct pronunciation. I highly recommend working with a native speaker – whether you hire a private tutor, attend classes, or work with someone online.

The primary purpose of language is communication – grammar is important, but there’s a bigger picture. Language is no longer seen as being learnt through mechanical exercises, it’s developed through students interacting and engaging.

q&a learning mandarinCan you recommend a Mandarin tutor in my area?

Sadly, I am not familiar with tutors in areas outside my own small community. My suggestion is to reach out to the local homeschool community and/or the community college. When we moved to Redding, for example, I had posted on the local homeschool forum the following query, “My children are interested in continuing Mandarin lessons and would like contact information for local providers in the area.”  This simple question provided us the opportunity to meet Shawn – he and his wife attended the same church as a member homeschool family.

Where we are now in Oregon, the local college previously offered a community education course in conversational Chinese. I contacted the college and requested contact information and an email was provided.

Other options for native speakers or tutors is through video conferencing software. While we have not had the chance to try out each, here are a few providers:

How many times a week would produce the best result?

We generally meet with Shawn twice a week (initially in his home and now via Skype as he resides now in Indiana). He plans each of the two weekly lessons, assigns and grades homework, and generally works with the kids independently for an hour each lesson. On occasion they do cultural and cooking lessons together – I even get to join in on these.

In addition to their lesson, Shawn recommends they spend between 1 and 2 hours “actively” studying the language. As fluency is very important to her, Geneva meets this goal regularly. Jeffrey, on the other hand, often does his homework as quickly as possible. When they were younger, I pushed for daily practice more consistently. Now, I have come to realize they have their own individual goals and I allow them more autonomy.

mandarin q&aDo you have any experience with … ?

Until most recently, we have predominately been using the Better Chinese curriculum as we had previous experience with the program and the product line was diverse. They have gradually progressed from the elementary series, My First Chinese Reader to the more advanced middle school series, Discovering Chinese Pro. The material is presented in several formats allowing students with different learning styles to choose the method for which they are best suited.

Periodically, Shawn or I will also supplement their lessons with movies dubbed in Mandarin, music, other materials to enrich the lessons and keep the kids engaged. Some of the other resources we have used include:

Joyful Signing

I have been trying for months to get Buddy interested in an activity like Taekwondo, Soccer or Sign Language. Each time I ask if he would like to do Taekwondo with his sister he says, “No, I can’t. I not big enough.” I continually reassure him and try to encourage him to try but he always says no … his facial expression nearly kills me … he looks withdrawn and rejected. I ask him what he would like to learn and his response is, “Nothing. I not want to do anything. I want to play with trucks and cars.” I don’t want him to feel like all the classes we do are for his sister and not him. I feel so bad.

When he was two, we did a Parent-Toddler Creative Movement (dance) class and he seemed to like it okay. There were three other boys in this class but now that they are older, the boys have moved on to other activities. If he were to continue with Creative Movement (ballet/tap doesn’t begin until age 5 at this school), he would be the only boy. I’ve been a little frustrated with the school anyway.

The choreography has been basically the same every year and Sweetie (having had taken classes there since she were 3) is bored with dance. She has even asked if she could do just the recital and not the weekly classes. We’ve lightly considered another school but haven’t looked into much as she seems content to stick with Taekwondo. DH is insistent that the kids do just one activity and he is a little frustrated that she does Taekwondo and Mandarin Chinese. Urgh! I’ve hijacked my own post – I was talking about Buddy. This is a material for a completely different topic.

Anyway, we have had these Signing Time DVDs since Sweetie was an infant. We used Sign Language a lot before the kids were speaking, though we haven’t used it much since. In August, another homeschool family offered to teach a Sign Language class for homeschoolers. I signed Sweetie up immediately. When I spoke with the instructor, I got permission to stay in the room with Buddy but my assumption was that he wouldn’t be interested. When the opportunity to take Mandarin arose, I briefly considered dropping Sign Language due to the schedule conflict but opted to give it a try knowing we’d have to leave early.

In anticipation of the class, we borrowed some of the newer Signing Time DVDs from the library. When we watch the videos, Sweetie is always eager to sign along with Alex and Lea. Buddy, on the other hand, sits attentively and simply watches. We’ve tried to encourage him to sign too, but he always replies, “I can’t.” I feel bad for him but I always respond, “Yes, you can, Buddy. When you want to try, I’ll be waiting.”

Imagine my delight when earlier this week, he started signing tree, forest, candy, more, and please as we were going about our errands. He has also only recently been able to work his fingers to sign ‘I love you’.

So, yesterday was the first day of Sign Language class. As we left the house, as usual the kids started asking, “Where are we going first? What next?” I went through the plan with them and they were both excited to go to Sign Language. When we arrived at the church where the class is taught, Buddy started asking, “Sign Language my class? I take Sign Language?”

A light bulb went off in my head – “Yes! This is your class, Buddy. You get to learn Sign Language. We will be there to learn with you so we can practice at home, but this is your class. Sweetie is learning Chinese. You get to learn Sign Language.” I think he liked to hear this but just before class started, I think he got shy again when he saw all the other kids. He said he wasn’t going to say anything. I explained that in Sign Language you don’t use your mouth to talk. You use your hands. He wouldn’t need to say anything. He said he didn’t wan to do that either. I told him that we would stay in class and that Sweetie and I would sign. When he was ready, he could join in.

He didn’t sign at all during class. However, when Sweetie was in Chinese shortly thereafter, I got him to practice the ASL alphabet with me a little. Then, in Taekwondo, he started pointing out the letter ‘A’ but rather than point with his index finger as he has done in the past, he was signing the letter and gesturing in that direction. I responded with enthusiasm and we did letter ‘B’ and ‘C’ as well.

I think he is warming up to it. I suppose I just need to be a little more patient. He is more reserved than she was and I need to remember that. He’ll find his niche soon.