Children who learn to speak Chinese will enjoy a rich cultural experience as well as economic advantages. Chinese is a rising language in the global economy.
Why learn Chinese (Mandarin)?
Just as Kiwis started studying Japanese in droves in the 1980s when Japan’s economy was ascendant, so today, as China rises, the world is embracing Mandarin (it doesn’t hurt that Chinese is spoken by an estimated one out of every six people on earth). In South Korea, 160,000 high school and university students are studying the Chinese language, an increase of 66% over the past five years. The number of Japanese secondary schools offering Mandarin more than tripled between 1993 and 2005, and in Japan it’s now the most-taught foreign language after English.
Mandarin is even being pushed within China itself, where hundreds of Chinese dialects can make communication tricky. The central government has promoted standard Mandarin, or putonghua, since the 1950s. Growing internal migration has boosted that effort and putonghua is now commonly heard on the streets of Shanghai and Guangzhou, cities with their own dialects.
Mandarin was not always so trendy. It’s daunting to learn, especially for Westerners, because of the shifting tones used in speech to change meaning – to say nothing of the thousands of characters that must be memorised to achieve true literacy.
Nowadays, speakers of Chinese not only live in China, Taiwan, and Singapore, but are also spread throughout Southeast Asia, North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, where large Chinese communities have developed.
Where do you learn Chinese?
You will find a variety of options available for your child to learn Chinese. This may be by mixing with Mandarin-speaking friends or family, or it may involve enrolling in lessons. Some ways to do this are listed below:
- Private language schools
- Universities or polytechnics for older children
- Local Community Centres, where you and your child could choose to learn together
- Home Schooling
- Language Exchange Programmes
- e-Learning courses
What age can your child start learning Chinese?
A child’s ability to grasp new and multiple languages at an early age is well documented. Pre-school children from ages as young as 3 or 4 can start learning Mandarin simply by being exposed to the language at home, or in structured play activities (such as those run by Fun Languages).
However, age is no barrier when it comes to learning a foreign language and it would be a great opportunity for you to learn alongside your child.
How do you progress over time?
The rate of progression will be determined by the child’s age, the amount of exposure to the language, and the amount of time they spend practising. The more opportunities your child gets to practice what they learn in everyday situations, the greater will become their level of proficiency.
Generally it is recommended that older students spend at least 1 year focused on learning the fundamentals of Mandarin and then on an ongoing basis continue to maintain the language ability by attending classes or practicing with other Mandarin speakers.
What equipment do you need to learn Chinese?
The equipment you choose will depend on the age of your child; some suggestions include:
- Mandarin-English dictionary (electronic or hard copy)
- Reference books including grammar and vocabulary books
- Audio CDs in the car
- Video tapes or DVDs to watch
- CD-ROMs with the aid of computers
You will also need to expose your child to Mandarin speakers whenever possible.
How much does it cost to learn Chinese?
Cost ranges from free (learning from friends or learning from various free websites) to several thousand dollars (for full immersion at an overseas language school).
For regular children’s lessons you could expect to pay anywhere between $12 to $20 per session, depending on the age of the child and the size of the group.
How much time does it take to learn Chinese?
Class times vary but generally most courses meet once or twice a week.
Classes generally run for 1 to 1.5 hours, depending on the age of the child.
Older children would be expected to spend at least another hour outside of class to revise and complete their homework. It would be ideal if a student could spend at least 5 hours per week outside of class to practice, but this is often unrealistic.
Great websites for further information
A must-use resource site with loads of information relating to Chinese culture
An information-rich site about the Chinese culture with tools for learning Chinese