Guest contributor: Jocelyn Sara Lim-Tan is a seasoned teacher and education researcher and the mom of Jude and Joshua. In this piece, she shares her tips for building a daily routine to boost Chinese language learning for her bilingual children.

Tip #1 What We Don’t Know, We Learn

I have two sons – Jude is turning 9, and Joshua is 6.

As a former primary school English language and Science teacher, I am no stranger to the classroom. When Jude started primary school, we had the option to send him to after-school Mandarin classes or coach him on our own.

I preferred to coach him as I wanted to spend more time with him. When I saw the Chinese characters in his primary 1 Chinese assessment book, I realized I needed to brush up on my Mandarin. As a former higher-Chinese student, I felt embarrassed when I struggled to sound out the characters as it had been a long while since I had to read Chinese characters.

At home, we have a motto: “What we do not know, we learn.” That’s how we master it. I can handle Mandarin, no problem.

Tip #2 Find Learning Experiences That Are Joyful for Both Parent and Child

As an educational researcher, I am aware of the benefits of making learning fun. Positive learning experiences help develop a growth mindset. Children with positive learning experiences often retain what they learn longer and are more motivated toward understanding. They tend to be more resilient and have more remarkable perseverance.

I believe education could be fun for both the teacher and the child. Perhaps, I have always been inspired by Mary Poppins:

In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. 
You find the fun, and – SNAP – the job’s a game!

Every day, we discover new things about the world, each other, and ourselves. Both can experience the joy of learning.

A joyful parent imparts the value of choosing happiness over worry. Try to seek out what your child has done well over what was not done right.

Tip #3 Connect to Children’s Prior Knowledge

We learn that good teachers build on children’s prior knowledge. The reason is that when children are able to connect to their prior knowledge, they start to own their learning. These moments of connection become precious opportunities for children to develop into self-directed learners. Knowledgeable adults and peers become the guides in making these connections.

For example, I recently took a group of kids to the Science Centre, and because I taught science, one of the parents asked if I would teach the children.  On the contrary, I see my role as a guide. I had taken them to a place full of inspiration, and what I needed to do was to wait for them to ask questions. We need to provide the environment for them to get excited about discovering new knowledge.   Children would ask questions when they feel ready. New knowledge and concepts make sense when children actively build on their prior knowledge.

I love to see how children come to their own realization or discover something that suddenly makes sense. My role is simply to provide the conditions and ask probing questions.

Tip #4 Seek Out Chinese Language Learning Opportunities For the Whole Family

We believe we should expose our children to an active lifestyle and develop a love for the arts. Hence, Jude is learning the violin, swims three times a week and plays tennis weekly. On the other hand, Joshua wanted to focus on swimming, tennis, and cooking. He also loves doodling, so we provide a print-rich environment for both to read and appreciate the work of talented illustrators. We watch many culinary videos together, and I love it when we can (finally) agree on a recipe we could work on over the weekend.

I find their childhood is just too short for them to spend time in academic tuition classes. I prefer for them to be self-directed, pay attention at school or seek out help from their teachers.

As for learning outside of school? We constantly seek out opportunities that we can learn together as a family. I observed that children take on their parents’ values towards languages. Values are caught, not taught. Amongst Chinese Singaporean families bringing up bilingual children, I feel like there are three groups:

  • Those who only speak Mandarin because they don’t feel confident in English.
  • Those who only speak in English and do not want to speak in Mandarin.
  • Those who value bilingualism and are themselves confident of their bilingualism.

I am full of admiration for this third group.

Hence, I saw Dim Sum Warriors as a great fit for our family learning philosophy.

Every week, we spend time as a family tuning into Chengyu Chenghua (成语成画)*- a feature of the Dim Sum Warriors Club where expert cartoonist Uncle Colin and Teacher Hsiao lead us to discuss and draw a 成语 (Chinese idiom). Joshua is so into 成语 time! It’s so cute to see him running around the living room, shouting “it’s 成语 time!”

Even when Jude was hospitalized for suspected appendicitis, we tuned in at 8.30 pm sharp! I whipped out my mobile phone, and Jude was actively engaged. He drew intently on his iPad, distracted from the fact that he is under medical observation. At home, we watch the livestream on our large TV screen. The whole family participates, including Grandma (who watches the recorded session because 8.30 pm is her dinner time). The consistency really helps.

*The Chengyu Chenghua(成语成画)LIVE series has ended its run. You can now access the entire library of videos through the CLUB and PLUS memberships at: Chinese Idiom Doodle Videos 成语成画 !

Tip #5 Build A Daily Routine for Casual Language Input

We use Koobits for Math and Science revision because Jude is intrinsically motivated to complete daily challenges. While searching for something for Mandarin, our neighbour recommended Dim Sum Warriors.

They are very engaged in the Dim Sum Warriors Club sessions because my boys love drawing. They feel a great sense of connection during in the LIVE session, where it is very interactive and there’s a lot of to and fro.

The Mandarin dialogue is also casual; everyday Mandarin they can easily pick up and use. The funny thing is, Jude doesn’t see each Dim Sum Warriors Club session as a lesson. He thinks it is a meeting, where he gets to meet Uncle Colin and get the work of drawing done.

The routine is good for him. 8.30 pm is our family Chengyu time before bed. On Saturday mornings at 9.30 am, we have more structured sessions with Teacher Hsiao in the Club Jam. We usually set the TV, the children gather their drawing supplies, and we are set. We used to have a little study time before bed, and now it’s replaced by Dim Sum Warriors Chengyu time.

And the Dim Sum Warriors Club membership comes with so many resources, and the materials are of very high quality. They both love the stories in the App and are on it quite a bit. Jude prefers the stories in Mandarin, while Joshua gravitates toward the English version.

Language acquisition is first by listening, followed by reading. To speak and write well takes many hours of listening to quality conversations and reading well-written books. Listening to the hosts and teachers chat in Mandarin and English during Club sessions helps them acquire the languages in context and appreciate bilingualism.

The other day at Pulau Ubin, a drink stall lady spoke to Jude in Mandarin, and we were so surprised when he responded readily, entirely in Mandarin!

Find Ways to Play With Languages

The thing is, Dim Sum Warriors is not intimidating to children. If the kids like to draw, they will find it very interesting. I have been very impressed by Uncle Colin’s ability to inspire kids to put their crazy ideas to paper. It gets the kids to articulate how they feel in drawing when words limit them.

I would recommend Dim Sum Warriors to primary school kids who like to draw. The content feels very appropriate for ages 6 to 10. And for English-dominant families, it’s a good activity for the whole family to participate in. Dim Sum Warriors has become a relaxing family activity for our family before the kids go to bed. It’s an excellent time for the whole family as we learn together.

And I’ve noticed that, because of the language play through the sessions, Joshua is starting to pun a lot across languages. The children enjoy jokes like “spiders are white because spiders are 是白的“ or  “spiders fail their exams because spiders are 失败的”!

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