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To Read Chinese One Must Start Early

In any written language, words are subject to a triple association: sound, spelling and of course meaning. For example, the English word horse refers to the working and racing animal, is pronounced /hɔː(ɹ)s/ and spelled h-o-r-s-e. Anyone knowing how to read will be able to pronounce the word relatively correctly even if they have never seen it in writing before, as English is written in the Latin alphabetical script.

As explained by S. Dehaene, the reading process takes place here through the so-called phonological route: graphemes are mechanically converted into phonemes without resorting to deeper semantic representations.

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The situation is quite different when it comes to Chinese. All Chinese languages are written in the unified system of Chinese characters. These Chinese characters are pronounced differently in each of the languages of the Chinese linguistic branch, for instance in Mandarin, the most widespread. Non-Chinese speakers often claim that the mapping of a Chinese character and its pronunciation is completely arbitrary; therefore it is said to be impossible to pronounce a character, even when knowing its meaning, unless its pronunciation has been learnt by rote beforehand.

The reality is slightly more subtle. Indeed, it is often necessary to learn simultaneously a word’s character and its pronunciation. But it must be stressed that 80% to 90% of Chinese characters are actually compound characters. They often consist of at least two subcomponents: a phonetic root (there are about 200 of them) and a semantic root (there are about 1000 of them). The phonetic root, often on the right side of the compound character, may give clues as to the pronunciation of the character. The semantic root, often on the left, tells about the word’s meaning, or at least the lexical category it belongs to. For instance, the Chinese character for a horse is马in simplified Chinese, and is pronounced  (third tone) in Mandarin.

The word for mother is pronounced mā ma (ma is doubled, the first one is pronounced with the first tone); the compound character for each ma has the semantic root of woman on its left and the phonetic root of horse on its right.

ma ma English

In a paper dated 2007, Bao Guo Chen and colleagues proved that the more arbitrary the mapping between meaning and sound or spelling, the higher the effects of the Age of Acquisition (AoA) on Chinese reading (for native speakers). Characters acquired early would be read with ease; characters acquired at a later stage would be more difficult to read if the correspondence between writing and sound or spelling was difficult to predict.

In other words, the more difficult it is to deduct meaning and spelling by reading a character, the more detrimental late acquisition is to quality and speed of reading.

Thus, within Chinese language and for native speakers, the impact of the Age of Acquisition increases with the arbitrariness of the mapping between meaning, pronunciation and spelling. What is the situation for alphabetical languages? By definition, reading an alphabetical language gives a very valuable clue as to what the pronunciation is going to be*.

Taken as a whole, the Chinese language is significantly more arbitrary than alphabetical languages in terms of mapping from character to sound and meaning. One can therefore assume that for Chinese even more so than for other languages, there is benefit in learning the language early so as not to be negatively impacted by the enhanced effects of the Age of Acquisition on reading.

 

 

 

 

 

To learn more about Chinese learning :
Chen, B. G., Zhou, H. X., Dunlap, S. and Perfetti, C. A. (2007).Age of acquisition effects in reading Chinese: Evidence in favour of the arbitrary mapping hypothesis. British Journal of Psychology, 98: 499–516. doi: 10.1348/000712606X165484

Stanislas Dehaene (2007). Les neurones de la lectureEditions Odile Jacob

 

Note : * The situation varies quite significantly from language to language. Italian or Turkish, for instance, are very easy to pronounce when reading a text, while a given spelling in English can be read in multiple ways (refer for instance to  toughthroughthorough, etc…)

Six Songs to Improve Your Children’s Mandarin Learning

Dear parents, did you sing “if you are happy and you know it” or “Jingle bells” with your children, when they first started learning English? Well, what if they’re learning Mandarin and feel like singing? Here are six songs for different age groups. Let’s sing together!

 

For 3-6 years old

Sounds from animals 动物的叫声

 

Easy catchy melody, easy vocabulary, super simple but useful sentences.

 

This song not only teaches your kids about animals, but also the sounds they make in Chinese! (Yes, the animals’ sounds are different in Chinese than in English) It will also help them learn some basic verbs such as walk (走), swim (游) and roll (滚), too.

 

Two tigers 两只老虎

 

Every country has its own version of this song. Every child knows the melody!

It’s interesting for kids to learn and sing a version of the same song in another language, plus the lyrics are really funny: one tiger has no ears, another tiger has no tail…

It’s nonsense, but kids don’t care! Trust us, once they’ve learned this song, they’ll never forget it.

 

For 6-9 years old

 

Where is my friend? 朋友在哪里

 

Beautiful and easy melody, contains numbers, and some basic everyday vocabulary and simple question structure.

 

White little bunny 小白兔白又白

 

Every Chinese child knows this song. It’s extremely catchy and popular in China.

It’s a song children sing with their grandparents, parents, kindergarten classmates and anybody you can think of.

It contains easy vocabulary like white bunny, ears, carrot, vegetables, etc.

Having learned this song, your kid will share a “universal language and topic” with Chinese kids. The adults will be impressed too!

 

For 9 years old and above

 

Counting ducks 数鸭子

 

You may know how to count 12345 in Chinese, but how about when the number are not in order? “Counting ducks” gives you a good blend of easy and advanced expressions for numbers in Chinese.

 

The yellow bird 黄鹂鸟

 

Is this a song, or a funny joke? No one can tell. But we know it has an absolutely beautiful melody with funny words that contain some advanced vocabulary and expressions.

Once your kids understand the meaning of the lyrics, they will laugh and love this song for sure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abby Gu – Mandarin Coach: “I enjoy using language as a tool to discover or help people discover other parts of the world”.

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My name is Yunfeng (Abby) Gu. I am Chinese and I have been living in America since 2011.

I got my Master’s degree in Elementary education from Dallas Baptist University in Texas.  I started teaching Mandarin as a second language to kids in 2008 and I really enjoy teaching my language to my students: I think this is such a fantastic journey we take together!

My husband and I have a 1-year-old daughter, and currently we are living in Dallas. I love crafts and enjoy making DIY items for my house. I also love travelling, but I get lost very easily, which makes vacation sometimes longer than what I expected 🙂

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I chose to be a Chinese teacher because I enjoy using language as a tool to discover or help people discover other parts of the world. I also realize how much my own perspective of the world was impacted when I learned English when I was young, and I want to share this experience with others.

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I joined VivaLing in 2014, and it has been a blast! My students are all over the world, and we have such great conversations about our lives from one country to the other. I love seeing students get excited about the session and the progress they make over time. I also love being able to personalize each session to each student based on their level, hobbies, personalities, etc. This is where my teaching expertise becomes really useful and meaningful.

I hope my daughter will also be able to learn another language through VivaLing someday soon.

Ava the Little Mandarin Singer and Story Teller

Today we are hosted by Olivia and Simon who took some time out between two trips to share some of their multilingual life with us.

 

  • Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Simon, my husband, our two daughters Ava (5 years old) and Zélie (2 years old) and myself have been living in Singapore for the past 18 months. Singapore is our second expat destination after Sydney where we spent two blissful years. We are originally from Paris but before we got kids, Simon, who works for a bank, used to live in London while I was living in Brussels, and before that, in Moscow during my studies.

Photo Ava G - (3) avec Olivia - Small

  • What are your best personal memories of multilingualism?

I have had the chance since I was 10 to be sent by my parents each year to a different country to finish my school year during at least one month (Germany, UK, US, Italy). Despite the fact that all my French friends were on holidays while I was still at school, thanks to my Kiasu parents (!), I have kept great memories of this time of my life. It helped me develop a sense of adaptability to understand other culture’s perspectives and build friendships with people from different origins.

Now it’s my turn to be a Kiasu mum 😉 so both of my kids are going to the Singaporean pre-school and I would like to send Ava to the local system for primary as well. After 2 years in Australian kindergarten hearing her saying to my neighbor: “Good day mate!” while heading to the beach, I now see her comfortable in speaking mandarin to her Lao shi or singing songs with her friends from school.

I am amazed by the ability and facility that kids of that age can have in learning new languages and adapting to new environments. Beyond the language, I wish for my kids to embrace all the cultural diversity they are exposed to in order to grow up, thinking outside of the box and having a tolerant approach to other cultures, religions and traditions.

Photo Ava G - (1) Famille - Small

 

  • What is your children’s linguistic journey ?

Ava was born in France. Her first language is French and she started learning English when she was two after moving to Australia. In Sydney, we used to speak mostly English including at home, so when we left for Singapore, her English was already pretty good.

She then started Mandarin at pre-school at the age of 4. I didn’t realise the first week how many hours of Mandarin she had per day and I remember picking her up from school, asking: “So honey, what did you learn at school today?”. She was mumbling: “I don’t know”. She had given me the same answer every single day since she started pre-school so I started to loose patience and then she said: “The English teacher has been sick all week so we have had the Chinese teacher talking to us all the time” Oops….! Yes, I felt like a bad mother… The week after, the English teacher came back and put a little bit of balance in Ava’s mandarin learning curve. Now she is the first one to ask if she can tell me a story in Mandarin. She asks for Sunny Laoshe’s class every day and when her 25mn Vivaling class is over, she watches the video of her previous class with Sunny Laoshi. I feel relieved, no trauma in Chinese!

Photo Ava G - (2) avec Zelie - Small

  • Why do you want your kids to learn Chinese ?

To speak the most widely spoken language in the world, I guess!  Mandarin Chinese is a key language to speak with English and Spanish probably. One step at a time… 😉

  • What does VivaLing bring you ?

VivaLing is the perfect tool to help Ava develop her confidence in speaking Chinese. At school, she has very few opportunities to have a discussion in Chinese. She hears the teacher speak, repeats the words, writes them but is invited to speak mostly during the “show and tell sessions” while she has to present to her friends a 3mn story from a book she chooses and translates in Chinese. The gap is quite big for her, as she has no occasion at home to speak in Chinese contrary to many of her friends. Now, thanks to VivaLing and to Sunny, she has someone twice a week to talk to in Chinese, to tell about all this part of her schoollife that I am not always capable to follow. She also plays with Sunny, showing her her dollies, telling her princess stories… She is Ava’s Chinese friend from Beijing! Thank you Sunny! Thank you VivaLing!

Next year, I envisage enrolling Zelie. “Zelie, do you want to learn Chinese as well ? Yào”.

Many thanks to Olivia and Simon for sharing their experience. If you too would like to be featured in this series, do get in touch with us!

 

For Fanny and Alex, the World Is about Exchange

Today we get to meet Fanny and Alex.

 

  • Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

We are a family from the South West of France, expatriated to Singapore since last year. We wanted to discover the world more than just by one-off trips!

Singapore is our first expat experience but Alex and myself (Fanny) have been on the road forever, going solo, or as a couple, then with our two kiddies as soon as they were a few months old. We have roamed over Europe, on the roads of Mexico and India, from Lebanon to Indonesia with stopovers in New-Zealand, Malaysia, Morocco, Japan, North America…

For us, travelling is essential to understand differences (and we experience differences in our daily lives with our younger son’s disabilities), to open up to others and to build today and tomorrow. More importantly, this should take place through the eyes of our kids on the world: they are the future and they must get sensitized from today.

Fanny et Alex, avec Nathanel et Eliaz

Fanny et Alex, avec Nathanel et Eliaz

 

  • What are your best personal memories of multilingualism?

The best memories, for Alex, are work-related : participating in trade shows, speaking in turn French, English, Spanish and Italian, to the point that, at the end of the day, he felt like a native speaker of each language !

We have numerous personal and family memories of all the opportunities granted by foreign languages: discovering more, going beyond barriers, understanding others better during each of our trips.

More recent memories are our requesting our son to teach us the basics of Mandarin – so that we can immerse ourselves better in local Singaporean life – and the smiles of Singaporeans when we talk to them in Mandarin!

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  • What is your children’s linguistic journey ?

Our kids had never studied English before coming to Singapore. In Bordeaux (France), they used to go to a school which had traditionally welcomed many immigrants of Hispanic origin. So they started their linguistic journey with learning Spanish from kindergarten onwards. In parallel, at home, we have spoken sign language for several years until our younger son was able to speak verbally.

Today, Nathanel (9 y.o.) studies English and Mandarin at school and with VivaLing. In spite of his difference, Eliaz (7 y.o.), is getting sensitized to English at school and with VivaLing with immense pleasure; he will very soon start attending a special needs school in Singapore.

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  • What does it mean to you to see your kids learning languages ?

Nathanel had vowed never to learn or speak English or any language other than Spanish ;-)! Today, seeing him chat with Singaporeans, with a big smile on the face, switching between English and Mandarin, is a real treat! For our older son, learning Mandarin is first and foremost a desire, a pleasure and an deep interest in a language that he describes as so subtle and singing. Seeing him thrive with other words and open up to a new way of addressing “others” and communicating, to a different culture, is key in the upbringing that we have chosen for our kids.

As for Eliaz, even at the « other end of the world », with the notion of « different languages”, he can benefit from a schooling system that is suitable to his needs without language being an obstacle. He can thus give free rein to his every day indulgences in meeting others and exchanging.

Foreign languages are a personal and professional asset for them. For us, the world manifests itself through Exchange and language is one of its main channels. The more spoken languages, the less barriers to discovery and meeting people.

VivaLing - Blog (Credit : Fanny and Alex) - DSC 7867

 

  • What does VivaLing bring you ?

The opportunities given by VivaLing are great from all perspectives!! A customized organization (perfect when your kid’s agenda looks like the Prime Minister’s), the possibility of adjusting to the kid’s rhythm while complying with the parents’, the convenience of sessions at home and even the rates. The interactivity is easy and perfect.

But above all, beyond the language itself, VivaLing enables to cross borders again and put our kids in touch with coaches from all over the world and all walks of life! In addition to language, our kids also learn how it is to live elsewhere. In our case, conversations shared with their coaches take our kids to the Czech Republic and Texas, USA.

Many thanks to Fanny and Alex for sharing their experience. If you too would like to be featured in this series, do get in touch with us!

 

Erika and Romain’s Interpreter Was Three and a Half Years Old

Today we are hosted by Erika and Romain who just came back to France after many years abroad.

 

  • Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

My husband Romain and myself, Erika, came back last month from Singapore where we lived for nine years as expats. We work with a large construction company. Our two boys were born in Singapore – they are 4 and 2 years old.

 

  • What are your best personal memories of multilingualism?

When we ask Maxence, our elder son, his citizenship, he replies : « Moi, I’m Chinese, et mon (petit frère) Amaury il est French » (“As far as I am concerned, I am Chinese, and my little Amaury, he is French”, in a nice mix of languages). I must say we laughed a lot, but jokes aside it shows a great openness to other cultures and languages. Last May, we travelled to Yunnan, in South China. Needless to say that very few people speak English there. On the second day, we bought a mango on the market. We could not manage to explain to the hotel staff that we needed a plate to cut it. They were rather surprised, to say the least, when a little three and a half year old kid asked them for a plate in Mandarin !

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  • What is your children’s linguistic journey ?

In Singapore our kids went to a local playschool and kindergarten. They would hear and speak Mandarin and English every day. We would speak only French to them to avoid confusion (and because our accent in English has room for improvement). Maxence had reached a point where his Mandarin and English were getting quite good, and it seemed to us a real shame to drop everything just because we were going back to France. He started Mandarin sessions with VivaLing in June, one month before we came back, to ease the transition. I must admit that we were not very confident as to the next steps, because at the beginning he completely refused to speak. However I could feel that he understood everything. After a few weeks, he uttered a “ni hau” (hello in Mandarin). Persistence paid off: now he interacts with his coach Sunny and speaks with her with an impeccable accent. He repeats, and plays while speaking in Mandarin in front of the ipad.

Amaury is still a bit young to stay 15 minutes seated in front of the ipad and take part in a language coaching session, but he will hopefully start a bit later.

 

  • Why do you want your kids to learn Chinese ?

My husband and myself are not really gifted as far as languages are concerned. We speak French of course and English. We have forgotten most of the German we learnt at school. Our careers are much more international than our parents’, and the same will go with our own kids. Mandarin is spoken by a huge share of the population: they are very fortunate to be able to learn while having fun, and without any pain. It will be a door-opener in the future.

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  • What does VivaLing bring you ?

I find it extraordinary that a little French boy should be able to interact with a Chinese coach living near Beijing, while himself living first in Singapore and then in France. Ties are built during the sessions which are meant to be fun. So much so that Maxence often tells us that he likes his “Sunny Laoshi” (laoshi means teacher in Mandarin). Coach Sunny adapts the sessions according to Maxence’s mood, by telling him stories based on the toys he shows her, for instance. I enjoy very much the flexibility made possible by VivaLing : as long as we have an internet connection, we can go on with our sessions on ipad, even during the holidays. No need to go anywhere, the sessions are easier to schedule. We enjoy being able to view the recorded sessions over and over again. Once we have settled in with VivaLing in Mandarin, we are thinking of starting English sessions.

 

Many thanks to Erika and Romain for sharing their experience. If you too would like to be featured in this series, do get in touch with us!

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From Shanghai to Dubai – Gaelle, JB and Their 4 Children Fulfill Their Linguistic Hunger

Today we are kicking off a new section of our blog: the linguistic family portraits. Each month, a family shares with us their multilingual experience, the reason behind it, its practical details, the challenges if any and the guaranteed joys. The family also treats us with pictures from their personal media library. For this first portrait we are privileged to be hosted by Gaëlle, Jean-Baptiste (JB) and their four children in the sands of the Arabian peninsula.

  •  Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

From our early childhood, my husband JB and I, Gaelle, have been exposed to a global culture. We were both born in France. When I was 18 months old, my parents moved to the US for 2 years. Even though I do not remember it, my parents often tell me that I started to speak English at kindergarten. Then they moved to Africa, and they tell that I was so happy being the only blond girl among my African friends. On his side, JB moved to Brazil at the same age, and spent 6 unforgettable years in this wonderful country. When we got married, we were eager to go abroad together. We lived 6 months in Vienna (Austria) and 3 years in Chicago (USA). However we decided to go back to France to start our family… but we knew that we wanted to live abroad again with our kids. Our first 3 children were born in France. Then my husband got an offer to work in Shanghai (China) where our fourth child was born. Last year, we moved to Dubai for another professional opportunity. Chameaux - HAZ

  •  What are your best personal memories of multilingualism?

When we travel to a country for business or leisure, we like to be able to interact with the locals and discover their culture – this is how we are. Our best memories are in China where we came across wonderful people. Speaking Chinese allowed us to travel on our own in the remote provinces where guides would not have taken us. Arriving in a village as a family of 6 was highly unusual. The question they asked us the most was whether the 4 children were ours. When they realized we spoke Chinese, they became much more vocal and discussed many different topics. . Chinoise - HAZ

  • What is your children’s linguistic journey  ?

In order to kick off their foreign language capabilities, we put our kids in a bilingual program (French – English) at the French school in Shanghai. They had one day in French with a French teacher and one day in English with a native speaker. They also started Chinese lessons at the age of 5. They learned speaking and writing. As a young kid, writing in Chinese looks like a drawing game, which keeps them motivated. Now in Dubai, they are learning Arabic. They still have classes in English at school but the challenge is to maintain their level in Chinese. Panda - HAZ

  • Why do you want your kids to learn Chinese ?

We believe that in the 21st century, it will become more and more important to be able to do business with China. Speaking Chinese and understanding the culture will be a great asset to be successful in this environment. In addition, it is much easier to learn Chinese for a child than for an adult. And very few people make the effort to learn Chinese. Chinese communities are more and more numerous and powerful around the world. Companies will need people who can deal with them. Shanghai - HAZ

  • What does VivaLing bring you ?

Since the school does not offer Chinese lessons, we have been looking for a solution for the children. We first started with a Chinese teacher but we switched to Vivaling for the following reasons : – Vivaling lessons are at home and save a tremendous amount of time in commuting – Vivaling offers a strong pedagogy which allows the parents to make sure their kids are learning something. The sessions are well structured with focus on vocabulary, pronunciation, and sentences. The coach is great, has a lot of energy and the 25-minute lesson format is very effective. Parents have access to the lesson content, the video, and the coach’s feedback. It makes it easier to follow what the children are learning. In addition, the flashcard activities are a fun way for the children to do their homework. – Before we started with Vivaling, we were reluctant to lessons behind the computer over Internet. Now  we realize that it is great. Children love it and feel very comfortable with it. VivaLing - HAZ   Many thanks to Gaëlle and JB for sharing their experience. If you too would like to be featured in this series, do get in touch with us !