No child too young
Updated: 2012-12-14 08:44
By David Bartram (China Daily)
Teachers from Manchester, the United Kingdom, try their hand at some Chinese cultural training. Provided to China Daily
For the first time, Mandarin is becoming widely available in the European curriculum with a more fun approach
Children across the continent are learning Chinese from ever-younger ages with parents, schools and governments throughout Europe preparing the next generation for greater interaction with China.
Some children as young as 3 are being offered an introduction to basic Chinese in the hope that it might one day give them an edge in the increasingly competitive and international employment market.
For the first time Chinese is becoming a widely available component of national curriculum across Europe, but parents are also turning toward the Internet, TV shows and private schooling to give their children a head start in the race toward Chinese proficiency.
Meanwhile, Hanban, the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, is rolling out a network of Confucius classrooms worldwide to support the rising demand for Chinese-language lessons.
"Parents are thinking about the long-term benefits their children will gain from learning Chinese," says Tina Zheng, a teacher at the Chinese Learning Centre in London, which offers Chinese lessons from ages 3 and up. "I think the main reason is giving them options. They realize their children might not end up in a job where they speak Chinese, but at least they are giving them that option. 'Options' is a key word I keep hearing from parents."
Parents with a strong multinational outlook, many of whom work in international law or finance, are among those particularly keen that their children attend Chinese classes from a young age, Zheng says.
For a place in a small pre-school class, an 11-week term, consisting of a one hour lesson every Sunday morning, costs parents 170 pounds ($270; 213 euros).
Although some might question the logic of sending a 3-year-old to learn a foreign language before they have mastered their native tongue, Rugang Lu, deputy chair of the British Chinese Language Teaching Society, says that learning young is easier than trying to pick up the language later in life.
"There is a big difference between how children learn Chinese and how adults learn Chinese," says Lu. "Children are more capable of picking up the language and the characters at the same time.
"Adults are more analytical, they try to understand the theory behind it and this can take longer. Children will just pick up words and accept it while adults want to know why it works."
Of course, this linguistic advantage can be cancelled out by the unenviable challenge of keeping pre-school aged children focused. At the Chinese Learning Centre, finding a balance between teaching and entertaining the children is key, Zheng says.
"It is important to make learning enjoyable for the children, keep their interest and don't just push them to learn. Sometimes we have parents come to our school and say that they tried other Chinese schools, where they pushed the children too much, but this caused them to become anxious and say they didn't want to go anymore," says Zheng. "You can learn a language from age 3, 5 or 10, but once you've lost interest it can be very hard to regain it. This is the biggest problem so our main goal is to keep them interested in Chinese."
This is achieved by keeping lessons entertaining, especially among the younger classes. A lesson might involve games, songs, story time and activities such as calligraphy and lantern making. Zheng also emphasizes the importance of good teachers.
"Some schools rely on multimedia, and while we use that as well, sometimes a one-to-one with a good teacher is needed to keep the children's attention. If the children like the teacher, they become more interested in the lesson."
In recent years this soft approach to language teaching has become widespread. Gone are the days of drilling long lists of vocabulary as teachers look to create a more immersive environment for learning.
An unprecedented number of resources are making this easier. In the UK, the BBC airs a TV program, with a supporting website, called The Lingo Show, aimed at giving pre-school children an introduction to foreign languages.
Earlier this year, the program ran a series focusing on Mandarin for the first time, where children were taught basic phrases by a roller-skating, crash-helmet wearing bug named Wei.
Adam Redfern, the series producer, says: "Lingo launched online with a total of nine languages, but when it came to the television show we knew we could only run series with three choices," Redfern says. "So we went with Spanish and French based on the UK curriculum in primary schools, but also Mandarin because of the growing interest in China.
"I think it's fair to say with China such a fast growing business nation, it made a lot of sense to introduce the future generation to Mandarin alongside the more traditional French and Spanish."
The show has proved a hit among many children and parents alike. Feedback from parents has tended to stress how surprised they are to hear their child joining in with the show, repeating basic phrases like ni hao ("hello") or zai jian ("good-bye").
Alongside the language, the show aims to provide an introduction to Chinese culture. During production, experts were brought in to advise on content and ensure the program didn't rely on cheap stereotypes.
"Because Spain and France are European neighbors, kids are more likely to experience these cultures and languages first hand on holidays and trips," Redfern says. "Certainly China is more remote, so fewer viewers will visit in their early years.
"We wanted to expose them to China and show them a glimpse of the culture. To say to them, 'Look, there are kids of your age but they are eating their noodles with chopsticks'. It can only open their eyes and celebrate difference and diversity."