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September 29, 2015

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From tots to teenagers: The benefits of studying Chinese for children

For expatriates living in China, knowing even the most basic, “survival” Chinese language skills can get us started with the language. However, to truly make the most of our time here in China, short or long-term, gaining mastery over the language allows us to get deeper into the culture and have a more meaningful experience.

For our children, especially, learning Mandarin will yield benefits in many ways beyond daily conversations. In addition to the communication gains, studies suggest that learning Chinese requires more brainpower than learning other languages such as English, as it requires comprehension of different tones and characters, and accesses and utilizes more areas of the brain. Additionally, a research study from Indiana University found that the practice of handwriting, especially of Chinese characters, helps develop fine motor skills. And then there is the scope of the language — Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken and fastest growing language in the world, quickly becoming a key language for business, second only to English.

With so many obvious benefits, it’s clear that children have much to gain both developmentally and competitively from learning Chinese. So the only question that remains is, is there a “best” age to start language learning?

According to Vicki He, superintendent at Yew Chung International School of Shanghai (YCIS), an international school with a bilingual focus, “there are many benefits for children to learn Chinese at all points of their educational journey, developmentally, academically, and culturally.” She continues, “In order to prepare students for an ever-changing and modern world, a bilingual learning environment is a powerful tool for communication and insight, as well as understanding multiple cultures.” So how does this happen in practice?

Starting with the youngest students

Numerous studies agree — the earlier children are introduced to a second language, the more likely they will find ease and develop fluency in their non-native language. Nevertheless, as very young children are still learning their first language, a similar and natural approach can be applied to introducing them to a second language in schools. At YCIS, children are introduced to a bilingual learning environment starting at age two in the Early Childhood Education (ECE), or Kindergarten, program. In this bilingual program, there are two co-teachers in every classroom, one international and one Chinese, who interact with the children and carry out daily lessons in their respective native languages, English and Chinese. Furthermore, the unique “learning through play” model takes into account children’s natural interests and curiosities, and co-teachers work together to grow and develop their interests through engaging learning.

Song Lin, Chinese ECE coordinator at the school’s Hongqiao campus, explains, “In order to effectively support young children’s language development, the ECE co-teachers will work together to create a language environment, in both English and Chinese, in their classrooms where the learning opportunities are based upon children’s interest and current experiences. This rich and varied learning approach helps facilitate children’s language development at their individual levels and paces.”

By immersing Kindergarten students in a bilingual environment that links directly to their own interests, children are engaged and take their own initiative in using their Chinese language skills through meaningful interactions.

Language as a ‘primary’ tool to understand culture

In Primary classrooms at YCIS, children begin studying specific subjects and are introduced to a diverse curriculum that helps them become well-rounded. In addition to building language skills, studying Chinese can help children become more globally-focused and culturally competent. At YCIS, Primary students also have two co-teachers and are immersed in a bilingual learning environment. The school’s robust Chinese language curriculum is based on decades of research, and is constantly re-evaluated and adapted to meet students’ changing needs. Students have daily, hour-long Chinese lessons, and in addition, they have a weekly Chinese Studies course to learn about and connect with their host country’s culture.

Janie Dong, Primary Chinese coordinator at the Regency Park and Century Park campuses, says, “Learning a second language can make it possible for children to interact with people from different cultures. They gain a multicultural perspective that helps them better understand things about the world, as well as themselves.”

As a result of cultural understanding and immersion, students are in a better position to learn the language itself.

Nicola Hill, a mother of three Primary-aged students who studied at YCIS and recently repatriated to the UK with her family says she attributes the school’s “East Meets West” environment to her children’s language interest and acquisition. She explains, “During our two years at YCIS, our children were truly immersed in life in China, especially as they learned Mandarin through daily language lessons, Chinese cultural lessons, and interactions with their Chinese co-teachers. Our children are able to speak, read, and write Chinese, which is incredible.”

In-depth exploration through language

Although young children may absorb languages “like a sponge,” older children have a more developed skillset to learn the technicalities of a new language, especially when it applies to grammar and pronunciation. At YCIS, Secondary students are provided with numerous opportunities to develop and fine-tune their language skills, not only learn through daily Chinese lessons, but also through numerous opportunities to participate in field trips and travel within China to foster meaningful language and cultural experiences.

Amy Yang, Secondary Chinese coordinator at the Century Park campus, says, “In Secondary, our Chinese teachers support the learning, practice, and mastery of reading, writing, listening, and speaking of Mandarin, with a focus on promoting cultural understanding. Verbal communication plays an important role in all classes and related field trips, with text and vocabulary closely aligned to the students’ daily life and experiences. Students are also exposed to Chinese culture and customs by interacting in Chinese with others, gaining a better understanding of Chinese language and culture.”

Whether your child is in their twos or their teens, they have a world to gain from learning Chinese. By studying at a school that values and promotes the developmental, academic, and cultural gains of language learning, students start on their paths to fluency, in addition to building a global mindset, both critical to success in today’s modern world.


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