How do you keep students engaged in learning a language like Chinese? This is a common problem faced by many parents and teachers here in Singapore. I always tell parents that the fastest way to learn Chinese is to send their kids to China for a good 10 years. They will come back with better Chinese proficiency, and may even pick up a Chinese accent.
While this may be quite an extreme thing to do, I am only making a point here: Environment is a major factor when it comes to learning. There is a Chinese idiom that goes 耳濡目染, which means literally that both the “ears and eyes are influenced and engaged”. Environment has the ability to shape our learning experience. With regards to my earlier point about sending children to China, they may not be going there with a deliberate intention to learn Chinese. However, they are forced to be surrounded by a Chinese environment, to read Chinese billboards, signboards, food and instruction menus, travel directions, and listen to Chinese news once they switch on their television and radio. So here’s my question: How can their level of Chinese proficiency not improve at all? It’s almost impossible.
To put things back to reality, many kids in Singapore find it a chore to master the Chinese language, not to mention having to pore through dense paragraphs in their Chinese comprehension passages. That is why we always hear from them that they find learning language a “headache” to begin with.
For a start, many of these younger generation are brought up in English-speaking modern families, as many of their parents tend to be more English educated. Having said this, there is thus a lack of practice opportunity back at home. Even in schools, many of them tend to converse in English. The only way to tackle this, besides having to go to China, is to keep reading, speaking, listening, and writing. The more exposed one is to the Chinese medium, the better. While requiring kids to read the Chinese newspaper may seem like a paramount task, there are other means to learn. You could watch a Chinese movie for example, and learn through subtitles for understanding. Or you could listen to your favourite Mandarin pop song from Jay Chou and pay attention to the lyrics used.
Anson’s Bilingual Classroom aims to induce fun through learning the language. Elements of music, speech and drama are injected into my teaching pedagogy. With a strong passion for these fields, I seek to create constant engagement with the kids. I infuse song learning, for example, through children’s songs (儿歌) and influences like xinyao (新谣). These work particularly well with early learners of the Chinese language – both locals and foreigners alike.
My point is, language learning should be flexible. It should be “out of the box”. While many local schools require a syllabus, the only way to sustain this interest to be a lifelong one takes much more effort than memorising words off the school textbook.
And that is why I have a role to play here.