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Talk about what you read together even if Chinese isn't your first language

Dr Chung Tzemin, Education Scientist,
CommonTown Pte Ltd
10 December 2018
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If you’ve set aside time to read Chinese picturebooks with your child, you’re off to a great start in helping him learn the language. Now it’s time for both of you to continue on that path to success in learning Chinese by discussing the story that you’ve just read. 

In this post, we’ll share some advice for talking about Chinese children’s books, even if Chinese isn’t your first language.

Make reading time, fun time.

Think of your reading time not so much as a study period, but more like personal bonding time with your child. Find a quiet place you can both relax in without anyone interrupting—turn your phone off or set it on silent mode. Make yourselves comfortable and enjoy the act of reading itself, which also means not having to worry about saying things in the right or wrong way. 

Let your child know that he can share his thoughts about the Chinese story books freely, and that it’s okay to make mistakes. Some experts even go so far as to say that we should never ask a child a question that we already know the answer to.     

Many parents have the notion that when reading Chinese books for kids, the text has to be read and the key phrases have to be memorised while understanding the main points of the story.

Yes, these things are important, but they can come naturally when you:

  • Talk about the illustrations in the storybook before you even begin to read. “Reading the illustrations”, or trying to understand what the illustrations are saying first, will give your child a chance to make sense of the meaning of the illustrations.
    Very often, your child won’t look at the “important” things in the illustrations, as they may be intrigued by less important, minute details—which is okay. Let him explore the illustrations as much as he wants first. This helps to make it easier for him to understand the story once the reading gets underway.
  • Bring your experience to bear on the story. When you talk about what’s going on in the story, try to relate it to your own experience.
  • Read between the lines as you read the text, because this will allow you to understand the feelings of the characters.
  • Don’t forget to smile as you read. Even if your child is looking at the book, he’ll be able to hear it in your voice. Making animal sounds and funny faces help the story to come alive.

As you talk about the story, remember to steer the conversation in such a way that will encourage your child to think and express himself in Chinese.

Here are some questions you can ask your child along the way:

  1. What do you see on this page?
  2. How do you think the characters feel? How do you know?
  3. What is going to happen next? Why do you say so?
  4. How is the situation in the story now different from what was going on before?

At the end of the story, keep the conversation going by asking follow-up questions such as the following:

  • What did you like about the story?
  • Was there anything you didn’t like about the story?
  • What happened in the story? (If you are reading to two or more children, try asking everyone to chip in with different details.)
  • Who was your favourite character? Why?
  • Has something like this ever happened to you?

  • The final question in particular will help your child relate to the story, and encourage him to share from his own experiences.

    Chinese not your mother tongue? Not to worry.

    Many parents may not have Chinese as a first language, and worry about how well they may be able to help their children learn Mandarin . If you’re one of these parents, don’t worry—you’re not alone.

    Parents around the world are becoming more and more aware of the trend towards globalisation, and are choosing to raise their children to speak two or more languages to help them prepare for interaction with other cultures.

    The good news is that language-learning experts and academic research support monolingual parents teaching kids to become bilingual. This includes parents who don't originally speak a certain language who would like to encourage their kids to learn it.

    Here are some tips to help you as you read in Chinese together with your child:

    • You can start out by asking close-ended questions, that is, questions may be answered by a yes or a no, about the story in Chinese.
    • After a while, you can gradually start asking more complex close-ended questions in Chinese such as “What colour is the box?”
    • Talk about the story in your first language afterwards. This way, your child will have richer and more complex language exposure.
    • You can also ask open-ended questions in your first language.

    Now here are some tips to help you help your child to learn Chinese in general, even if you don't speak it yourself: 

    • Play Mandarin for children translation games with questions such as “What’s ‘red’ in Chinese?”
    • As your child gains more facility with the language, start asking open-ended questions in Chinese such as “What kinds of decorations do you want for your birthday party?”
    • Try using the One Parent, One Language (OPOL) technique, where either the mum or dad speaks to your child exclusively in Chinese. The OPOL method has been successful if the parents are consistent in using it over an extended period of time.
    • Create a “Chinese corner” at home, where you keep, display and play with Chinese made easy for kids language games, toys and other activities. This corner may even be where you hold your regular reading time, recite rhymes or sing songs together.
    • Be a Chinese language-learning role model for your child by showing him that you're interested in Chinese culture. Try to speak Chinese whenever you can, enrol in Chinese classes, and even go on a family trip to China if possible. 

    Let technology help you out.

    As you have fun during reading time, you’ll naturally want to make each experience as educational as possible. Technology such as electronic dictionaries and eBooks can help you do just that. Using eBooks such as children’s short stories online will make it easier for you to access narration, ask open-ended questions, and look things up in a dictionary.

    This, in turn, will help your child pick up new words much more readily.
    Get tips for helping your child develop a rich vocabulary in our next post.

    benefits of using eBooks for language learning include giving kids a more enjoyable reading experience via multimedia. They’ll be able to look at graphics, play games or watch videos. Ebooks like Chinese short stories with Pinyin are especially helpful for children.

    Let eBooks form a bond between you and your child every Chinese reading time.
    Sign up for Dudu, today.