Thursday, October 29, 2015

4 Part Series on Chinese for Children - practical tips for students and their parents

If you are asking "How do I  help my child learn Mandarin?  How do I help myself learn Mandarin?" we have the answers for you.  The first in a series of 4 articles addresses how to set realistic goals. It is the first step in learning Mandarin, and any language for that matter.

Step one - Setting realistic goals

How do I find child appropriate instruction and/or materials to help my child learn Mandarin?

These are very important questions for any parent who has decided to raise their child in a bi-lingual household.  Fortunately, there is not one “right” answer to either question.  There is no magic bullet, no perfect teacher, no product or environment that will suit all needs.  Instead, you will find a growing marketplace with more choices available than at any time in the past – and this is a good thing. 
So, how do you navigate this vast marketplace?  Do you need a guide, an expert to take you through?  No, the very first step is one you do right at home within your family.  Make a list of goals – short term, medium term and long term.  These goals have one critical requirement – they must be realistic.  In order to be realistic, goals must have near term end dates that are achievable, they must be relevant to those engaged in working toward those goals, and they must be measurable. 

Realistic goal = achievable end date + relevance + ability to measure

Now you are asking, “how do I set realistic goals when I don’t really know what I am doing?  I can’t possibly do this by myself.”  Well, yes you can.  Only you can decide what the goals are for your family.  No external teacher, expert, publisher or sales person should tell you what you need.  This decision is too personal to rely solely on an outside voice.

Let’s look at how to set short, medium and long term goals.

For example, many parents begin with goals that do not meet these criteria.  For the purpose of this blog post, we will use the following to illustrate how to set realistic goals.

Sample “unrealistic” goal:  “I want my 3 year old son to become fluent in Mandarin so he can be a successful businessman.”  

This is not a realistic goal for the following reasons:  

Ability to measure and
Achievable end date.  

Relevance – The sample goal lacks relevance for a 3 year old child.  Children this age are learning how to share and get along with other children, how to take turns, how to express their emotions using words.  A 3 year old boy wants to grow up to be a fireman, race car driver, dinosaur, or his dad.  A 3 year old girl wants to be a princess, a mommy, or Dora the Explorer.  The point is that children are learning the social rules through play at this age, not working toward future careers.  

A relevant goal for a 3 year old is to learn the sentence patterns and vocabulary to engage in imaginative play around a subject of interest to the child.  For instance, learning to play a Fireman can include – the names of the clothes and equipment, colors, safety and precautions about fire, verbs about putting out a fire, climbing a ladder to save a kitten from a tree, bravery and service to others, words about heroes, working together, sharing and taking turns to get a job done.  These tasks fit within the universe of a 3 year old child and are therefore relevant.  They involve activities that interest and engage young children.  Finally they involve imagination, play, age appropriate vocabulary and will interest boys and girls. 

Ability to measure - The sample goal cannot be measured.  How do you define fluency?  Is it the ability to use 2 or more languages equally?  For instance, a doctor “fluent” in three languages may not be proficient in all medical terminology/procedures in each language.  She may be more proficient in one language than another depending on the subject.  Depending on the age when she learned each language, where she went to school, the language of instruction and the professional journals she reads, she will be stronger in one language than the others depending on the subject area.  Fluency can be defined in different ways for different people.   

A measureable goal is one that can be evaluated through objective means.  For instance, if the lesson on how to be a Fireman includes 10 sentence patterns, 25 vocabulary words, and one song, the 3 year old child can be evaluated for listening comprehension and speaking ability.  The child can be given tasks where they demonstrate comprehension by performing tasks. “Where are the helmets?” The child would be expected to show the teacher where the helmets are.  Next the teacher would ask the child to “pick up the red helmet and put it on the blue truck.”  This is a multi-step command to evaluate comprehension.  In this example the child must identify a helmet of a specific color and place that object on top of a truck of a specific color.  The teacher could then ask the child a question to evaluate speaking ability such as “what color, is it big/small, do you like it?”  An older child can be evaluated on reading and writing those patterns and words.  Evaluations can and should be designed to meet the age and developmental level of each student.  For a 3 year old, picking up the red helmet and placing it on the blue truck is a good comprehension test even if the child is not yet verbal in the classroom.  Singing the song with actions (putting on the helmet, jacket, climbing the ladder, saving the kitty, putting out the fire with a hose) is another way to evaluate comprehension. 

Achievable end date – The sample goal is too broad and poorly defined to set an achievable end date. 

By contrast, if a parent wanted to learn to play an age appropriate game with their child in the first month of class, this can be achieved.  It is a realistic goal that can be measured with an achievable end point.  
Now let’s look at examples of realistic short, medium and long term goals:

Short term goal – learn to play an age appropriate game with your child in the first two language classes.

The “Where Is” Game – This game has many variants for different age and developmental levels:  peek–a-boo, hide and seek, Where’s Waldo, concentration.  This game is suitable at any age for a beginning level student.  It can be taken into the intermediate level with more complex vocabulary and sentence structures by adding the skill of discussing complications.  

Medium term goal – learn to do a complicated task in target language.

Going grocery shopping – focus on the sentence patterns involved in choosing food, planning breakfast, lunch and dinner, discussing what you like and don’t like, paying for goods, prices, discounts, counting currency.  This is a good goal for 1-3 months of language learning.  Similar to the Fireman game example, it can include 1-2 songs, 10-15 sentence patterns, preferences (like, don’t like, love, hate), numbers (currency, counting, expensive, cheap, too much, how much), many types of food (vegetables, fruit, meat, bread, pasta, fish).  

Long term goal – complete a textbook, finish reading a certain level of reader, watch a movie or TV series in target language.

Finishing a level of instruction such as completing a textbook or level of instruction online is something that makes a strong long term goal.  It is not so far out that it cannot be relevant or measureable.  Just the opposite.  Completing a level is something that does take significant time and the progress can be evaluated.  The same applies to reading a book or watching a movie/TV series in target language.  These are longer term goals that require repeated and concentrated work.  

Once you have started to write down your family language learning goals, you will see that they require frequent revision.  You need to look for teachers, programs and products that can help you meet these goals.  A teacher who is only interested in their goals is not prepared to help you meet yours.  Ask questions, look at the materials used, ask for your goals to be met.  This is how you choose a teacher, program or product; by finding someone who or something that is prepared to help you achieve your goals.  If you don’t find it, keep looking.  

Finally, don’t forget that you can be the teacher.  Even if Mandarin is not your native language, you can take what you know and bring it into the home – one sentence pattern at a time.

Chinese for Families is a Philadelphia-based Mandarin-as-second-language program.  We blog about products we like (and actually use) at The Best Stuff for Kids to Learn Mandarin, host a Twitter feed that features , , and maintain a Facebook page with articles of interest to families raising Asian American children.  

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