Experts agree that second-language acquisition is infinitely easier for children than adults. Yet this doesn't mean that your kids will have an easy time learning Standard Chinese (Mandarin) and becoming perfectly bilingual.
If you and your family come from a Western country (be it English-speaking or not), you will have no linguistic familiarity to fall back on. And as experienced ex-pats know all too well, familiarity is the one thing that makes the process of language-learning a lot easier.
So what is one to do?
Well, for starters…
Create Linguistic Familiarity
Unless your children have taken Chinese language classes back home or have some kind of familial connection to China, the language will seem insanely foreign at first. Creating familiarity is the first step toward helping your children (and yourself) get a grip on the local lingo.
To this end, it's a great idea to open yourself up to the local culture in every way imaginable. Watch local TV channels, listen to local radio stations, and shop (with your kids!) in local produce markets, where you'll be forced (at first) to use body language to get your point across.
Soon enough, you'll start to pick up a few words but, pivotally, your ears will start getting used to the ‘sound' of the local language. Give it time, and Mandarin will not sound as alien as it might do initially!
Watch Children's Programs on TV
A Chinese toddler may have a one-up on you on the vocal familiarity, yet when it comes to grammatical knowledge and understanding, you'll be pretty much on par. And that's why watching kids' programs on TV is such a fantastic idea!
By their very nature, programs made specifically for children use simple language, and presenters speak slower than average – just the thing to pick up the basics. Early learning programs are particularly handy as they use a lot of visual cues, making it easier to connect the linguistic dots.
Make a habit of catching an hour or two of afternoon kids' TV with your brood and have fun learning together as you go along.
Give off the Right Cues
We all know that children have a knack for copying all of our bad habits and mysteriously ignoring all the good ones. For many ex-pat families, this is also true when it comes to attitudes towards learning Chinese.
If you lack enthusiasm for wanting to learn the language (“Oh, I don't need it anyway, my workplace is English speaking”), your children will tap right into it and follow suit. If you seem reluctant to learn Mandarin, why should they bother?
Even if it is true that you could survive without learning Mandarin when you move to China, it's unlikely that the same can be said for your child/children. Especially little ones: China will become their ‘home,' and the last thing you'll want is for them to feel alienated because they can't speak the language.
Find the Right Ayi for Your Family – She'll Be Your (Mandarin) Savior
Domestic helpers are part and parcel of expat life in China. These ‘aunties' (ayi) are like a gift sent from the gods: they'll help you navigate your way through your new life in China, help you run your household efficiently AND look after your kids. For expat families who've moved here with toddlers and younger kids, ayis are the primary reason they end up with children who are ridiculously fluent in Mandarin.
Tap into this invaluable expat resource and find your ayi as soon as you arrive: both you and your children will soon come to think of her as your Mandarin (and China) lifeline.
Want Your Children to Develop Language Skills in Education? Send Them to an International School
This Shanghai international school, WISS, takes extensive measures to ensure that their students are given superlative support as they grow. Students from Grades 1 to 5 take daily Mandarin classes, catering to their language abilities, from novice to native. This system makes sure that new Mandarin learners have the proper foundations upon which to build their language skills.
Meanwhile, students who already possess Chinese language proficiency will continue to develop their abilities at a higher level.
Furthermore, students in Grades 6 – 12 can take Mandarin Language Acquisition classes and are placed in the appropriate phase for their ability level. Choosing a school in which students are consistently given opportunities to expand their skillset and secure their future as a confident speaker of a second language is of the utmost importance when aiming to raise a successful Mandarin speaker.
The process of supporting and guiding your children through second-language acquisition will likely involve a multitude of tactics. Aside from the abovementioned tips, you can also sign up the kids to sports clubs and playgroups – anything that gets them playing will also have them learning. And don't forget those all-important expat social networks: hook up with families who truly understand where you're coming from, and you'll find an invaluable source of support and guidance in China.