Myth: My child will pick up Chinese naturally in school, just like I did

As a principal of a Chinese school, I get daily questions from new parents worried that their children will fall behind as they are raised in English-speaking families. “My child gets zero exposure to Chinese at home, how ah?”

The good news is you aren’t alone: last week, Singapore’s Department of Statistics released its latest census, revealing nearly four in five children use English as the predominant language at home. The bad news is MOE hasn’t really reduced the difficulty of the Chinese curriculum, so you still have to find a way to help your child enjoy learning Chinese.

The importance of environment

If your children mostly speak English, you might be wondering: what does this mean for you?

We all know that having a conducive family environment is one of the best ways to pick up languages.  Young children have an amazing ability to learn languages through immersion – children can grasp unfamiliar words and concepts simply by being exposed to it multiple times, even without formal instruction.

What’s less known is that insufficient exposure to a second language can affect a child’s willingness to use the language. Pearson, Fernández, Lewedeg, & Ollerin studied Spanish-English bilingual children with different levels of language exposure and found that if a child was exposed to the language less than 20% of waking hours, he or she would be very hesitant to use the second language.

So does being an English-speaking family mean our children will suck at Chinese, especially if our Chinese aren’t great too? The short answer is no, but we parents will need to put in more effort. 

Myth: My child will pick up Chinese naturally in school, just like I did

A common misconception is that our children will naturally pick up Chinese in school without any real issue. Afterall, when we were young, our parents didn’t send us for enrichment or teach us Chinese, and we picked it up fine in primary school. So shouldn’t it work for our children?

However, this ignores the tremendous demographic shift that has taken place – in 2000, a mere 1 in 3 children spoke mainly English at home; fast forward 20 years, nearly 4 in 5 children speak English most frequently. (Note: 2000 data is obtained from a previous census)

The situation in primary schools has also changed – just like at home, most students in schools use Chinese only during Mother Tongue classes, and switch back to English immediately after Mother Tongue classes. I recall 20 years ago when I was in Primary School, that was the exact opposite – we spoke English during lessons and Chinese at most other times. 

So what can we parents do?

We highlight the demographic shift not to be pessimistic but to be realistic about the challenges that our children will face.

The good news is while many Singaporean Chinese parents worry they cannot help their child with Mandarin because they worry their own Chinese standard is too weak, the reality is we can still provide rich immersion opportunities at home even if our pronunciation or grammar aren’t perfect.

In their seminal book “Bilingual Edge”, Georgetown University linguistic professors King and Mackey explain that the belief that only native speakers can teach their children a second language is simply a myth.

They say that imperfections do not harm or impede children’s language learning, and children language acquisition occurs even if adults do not speak perfectly. What is critical is not that children hear complete sentences, but that they are directly engaged in conversation. Even parents with limited Chinese proficiency can interact with their young children in Mandarin, providing important language input and vocabulary foundation.

💡Pro Tip: Don’t be afraid of speaking to our children in Chinese. We do way more harm not speaking to them in Chinese because it deprives them of a healthy language environment.

Indeed, many parents will speak to our teachers in Mandarin, saying they are afraid to speak to their children in Chinese because they either find it unnatural or they aren’t sure about their abilities. But if parents can have a proper conversation in Mandarin with teachers, we are more than qualified to have short conversations with their children in Mandarin, setting them up for future success in the language.

Making reading with your children a regular activity

Another great way to provide rich immersion opportunities is to read to your children regularly. 

As we mentioned in an earlier post, reading builds both vocabulary and interest in Chinese; indeed, research shows children can increase their vocabulary substantially through incidental learning, where students encounter new words from reading, even when they do not receive explicit explanation of these new words. 

And if you are worried about not being able to recognise all the words when reading to your children, we recommend using Pleco, a great Chinese dictionary app that allows you to scan words to look up meanings. 

Closing note

We understand parents are very busy, and if you would like to “outsource”, KidStartNow runs weekly classes that combine time-tested teaching methods with proprietary AI technology to make learning Chinese effective and fun. We are recommended by 20+ parent bloggers and 95% of our parents continue with us every term because they see their children improve week after week, month after month. 

We provide onsite N2-P6 classes at Bedok and online P3-P6 classes, and please leave your details below and we will contact you within two working days.

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