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news-image Apr 14 2022

To Speak, Read, and Write Chinese

by Laura Wang

How to teach young children to Speak, Read, and Write Chinese? Let’s think back to when we were children: how did we communicate? When we were babies, we tried to communicate our desires by pointing to objects but ended up crying and crying until we got what we wanted. And when we got a little older, we continued to cry but mixed it up a bit with a few words we acquired from our surroundings. We were talking and communicating long before we knew that “A” stood for apple and “B” for Beijing.

Speaking is the foundation of communication. As such, learning to speak Mandarin is highly important in social and business settings. Regardless of the goal, you have set for your child, the younger they can start learning Mandarin, the better their fluency will be. If your child is aiming to become conversational in Mandarin, they can begin at any age and still be able to hold their own. Now that we’ve established that age is but a number when it comes to learning, let’s get down to the “how.”

For those of us who grew up with educational broadcasting and Saturday morning cartoons, we know that television can be as good of a teaching tool as a textbook. We’re not advocating that you turn your child turn into a couch potato, but it’s okay to let them watch an entertaining cartoon or a piece of educational programming, especially if they’re trying to develop a foreign language. Similar to how Sesame Street taught us the alphabet and counting, a foreign language TV program can enhance children’s listening comprehension skills and prime them for more complex verbal communication.

There are ample Sesame Street- and Lamb Chop’s Play Along-type of television shows in Mandarin or dubbed into Mandarin, but one of our favorites is the serial cartoon, Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf. This popular Chinese creation has been entertaining children since 2005. The somewhat internationally recognized series teaches viewers moral lessons, and with more than 800 25-minute episodes under its belt, your child can easily develop their Mandarin proficiency alongside this merry cast of sheep and wolves in sheep’s clothing.

From the spoken to the written word (which is exactly the order that children are taught)? Having been teaching for more than 20 years, I have pupils who have grown with my career but are still eager to learn speaking, reading, and writing as the day we first started. It’s much easier to teach reading and writing in Mandarin at an earlier age, but it can be learned at a later stage than speaking without too much harm. It’s actually easier to learn to read and write when you’ve already picked up some of the languages. There are around 50,000 to 80,000 Chinese characters in use, including variants of root characters, but your child will only need to learn 1,000 characters to read 90% of what’s out there. At 2,500 characters, they’ll be able to read at 98% capacity, which is the general level of native Chinese. Finally, at 3,500 characters, they’ll be able to read 99.5% of modern written materials, which is arguably an academic’s level. So, even if your child can’t write mom or dad in Chinese right off the bat, the fact that they can say it means they’re well on their way to learning the language. Now they only need to learn another 998 characters after that…