When China adopted the Open Door Policy in 1979, it not only opened its gates to the world but slowly also welcomed former outsiders to step into theirs. Bit by bit the Middle Kingdom expanded in terms of knowledge, but then a new challenge came—the inability to completely comprehend and communicate with this new world.
Fast forward to modern China, where learning this foreign language is not just an option anymore, but a must, especially if one wants to pass the dreaded Gaokao examinations. Language training options start from babyhood and its reach inescapable even in adulthood. More than just a means to understand and communicate with the outside world, English has become the new language of prestige and potential.
But believe it or not, Chinese parents also hate the stress this additional pressure brings, and embrace ways that make at least this one subject fun for their kids. While other subjects such as Math or Literature may need intense reading and almost a despairing mastery of the topics, foreign language learning can actually be quite fun, as proven by the many ingenious companies that have popped up catering to this market of parents bent on making language learning more enjoyable for their kids.
Other than sending one’s child to a bilingual or an international school, here are several ways Chinese kids are having fun learning a foreign language:
1. By Watching English Shows
Shoes kicked off right before flying onto the couch while Mom gets the remote to put on your favorite show—plus snacks. What could be more relaxing than that? Albeit in a foreign language, as long as its their favorite cartoon on, young kids
welcome embrace the screen zombification. My daughter, for example, has been watching Chinese kiddie music videos via our Xiaomi Black Box, and not only does she love her shows, it’s actually really helped with her Mandarin vocabulary.
2. Have Fun with Songs.
There’s a reason classes for young children usually begin with songs. Here’s an excerpt from Community Play Things that explains it:
“When young children sing “Eensy Weensy Spider” or “Clean Up, Clean Up,” the underlying steady pulse of the song combined with the active singing pushes the brain to remember the next part of the song, and the next, until we reach the end. This begins as “rote memory” (short term) but does evolve to conscious thought and long-term memory as children mature and songs that have meaning are sung repeatedly by individuals.”
But another reason is that simple, happy songs like these allows a child to attach a positive feeling to the memory of when it was sung. My older daughter, for example, loves singing the Chinese song about two strange tigers, one without the tail and one without the ear, because it’s one of the first Chinese songs she mastered with me and the fact that these tigers are so strange! We’ve been singing other Chinese songs as well since then, but she still asks for the Tiger song the most.
3. Sing Your Heart Out.
One advice I gave my friend before when she asked me how to encourage her child to like English was to expose her to English at least thirty minutes a day. Like my previous example, I suggested singing her favorite song with her child. She followed my advice and burned a CD full of her favorite songs. A month after, I happened to be riding the car with her and her daughter when suddenly the start of a Lady Gaga song came on. Minutes later we were all singing, “A po-po-po-po-po-po-po-po-po-poker face.” They sang the rest of the song while I was grinning nervously on the sidelines, a bit worried at the effect of my advice. My friend’s then-toddler-now-primary-schooler likes the song but fortunately has moved on to new music preferences more befitting her age.
4. Lip Sync Movies/Tv Shows
Aiming for Hollywood? This could be your kid’s stepping stone. Children can become their favorite characters by joining classes that allow kids to speak their lines. It allows them to practice the target language and brag that they have their own movie teasers. Here’s one done by my friend’s daughter about a cat finally achieving its dream.
There are a few places in Beijing that offer English Book Reading sessions for kids. The one in particular that I like going to is Peekabook, where they have a reading session in Chinese,and then in English, and then a crafts session afterwards.
6. Join a Choir
Photo: Top English World
Parents who want to take their children’s singing career beyond the four walls of their bathrooms can consider enrolling them in an English choir. This school for example has choir classes especially targeting children who want to develop their passion for singing—except it’s done through English songs.
7. Join Language Camps
“Language Camps” usually happen during the summer or winter holidays, and for older kids there are one day field trips or even overnight excursions with native English teachers leading the group as a selling point. For those not coerced into joining by their very over-proactive parents, trips like these are great opportunities to practice the target language without constant parental guidance.
I studied in a Chinese school when I was much younger, and to motivate me to study Mandarin more diligently (I was a lazy kid) my mother would tell me of the opportunities I would have to use that language during our travels. I regret not being a more obedient child, but it worked in favor of my more diligent friends back then.
But my mother, determined on making a Chinese out of me, decided to send me to China (alone) to study Mandarin for a year. Did it work? Of course it did. And— honestly speaking— it was one of the best years of my life.
9. Playing Games in English
One way some Chinese encourage children to learn English is by letting them play English games on their phones. Interestingly the website my friend usually visits with her children is Starfall, a resource I also used to use during my ESL-teaching days. It turns out that our little ESL secrets back then aren’t so secret after all.
What I love about these methods is that they’re universal and doesn’t have to be limited to learning just English (except maybe for the Lady Gaga part). For those looking to expose their children to a foreign language, why not try out the Chinese way?