Introducing Mandarin

Ayo’s first introduction to Mandarin was uneventful. I didn’t take him to some toddler class. Oh no, it wasn’t that glamorous. I have come to realize that the best language learning opportunities do not always come in a beautiful school package, tied with a perfect teacher bow. I simply selected two very short YouTube videos: one song about colors and one video on the topic of fruit. After a nap one day a few weeks ago, I asked him if he wanted to learn his friend Micah’s language. “Yeah!” he assured me. So, two year old Ayo was plopped in front of a screen and eagerly watched the two videos after a nap one day. I sat quietly beside him, watching his reactions.

At first, he was riveted and completely silent, clearly intrigued by this foreign language that was neither French nor English. He has definitely heard Chinese before but never been sat down in front of a screen to listen to a third language. It must have felt strange and perplexing: he thought he knew his colors but now it seemed he didn’t at all. Next I knew, Ayo was relying on his eyes. He began to chant the color louder than the Chinese color. “Orange!” he chanted, over the “Chéng sè” [romanized]. At this point, I intervened, telling him that was right, that was Mandarin for “orange”!

Many fond memories of Chinese school came back to me as we watched the fruit video. I am so fond of the Chinese as a people-group, as a culture and with Mandarin as a language. The lively and hospitable culture, the amazing food, the beliefs hidden behind the characters, the history behind the four letter sayings (called 成语 “chéngyǔ”), the coexistence of the artistic and the orderly in each character’s strokes, the melodic of rising and falling tones … just some things that are so beautiful to me. Such are some of the things I am eager to share with our children.

That said, I have to write that I chuckled as we watched the fruit video. This is because I remember how Mandarin taught by a mainland Chinese native was so authentic, and to the Western mind….and at times…umm…rather illogical! Similarly, in “our” fruit clip, we “Follow Jade!” to the market in China and learn the names of a few fruit. Then when we go to review the fruit, Jade asks us which one is the watermelon. A fruit we hadn’t heard of previously at all. I had to giggle as many memories filled my mind of me scratching my head when confronted with typical Chinese language teaching pedagogy.

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Actually, we got lucky because there was at least no Westerner featured in this video. In so many of the language learning material coming out of China, the foreigner (typically Caucasian) is portrayed as clumsy and ignorant. In contrast, China is glorious and perfect and the Chinese character is intelligent and all-knowing. As a language student, you have to simply take this with a grain of salt and realize that most foreign language educators and publishers have never left the country and this is the lens through which they view the 老外 (“lǎowài”), the foreigner. If you are thick skinned enough, you’ll be able to see that it’s hysterical. Government subsidized CCTV[.com] has its own range of free language learning videos, that are absolutely fascinating from a sociological and cultural perspective: white guy trips over his huge nose onto the dinner table. Chinese friend comes to rescue with band-aid. Good entertainment, but the videos are absolutely useless for most Western language learners. The level is often way too high for beginner/intermediate learners and too low for the advanced learner…

This digression leads me to separating our own Chinese language learning material in two categories: those from China and the Western ones that have high-quality producers / publishers. I still view Chinese material as very valuable for our family in understanding Chinese culture and have a nice selection from our past trips. However, I have found that sources like Chinesepod.com or, say, Little Pim DVD that have Western curriculum or directors but use Chinese native speakers are sometimes more accessible and helpful to the learner when coming from a Western context.

Back to our colors and fruit. Ayo watched them both and then wanted to watch them again. Then, in the middle of a video, he told me he was “all done”. I watched him physically relax his shoulders and return to thumb sucking as he was granted one French video. Little to no work was required to understand this one. Fascinating how the brain works.

Most linguists would agree that videos should not be the only method of language input. Ideally, one could learn and practice it with a native speaker. But there you go, that was our real-life first introduction. :)

2 thoughts on “Introducing Mandarin

  1. You have plumbed the depths of a language that proves that culture and language are forever intertwined. I feel the love you have for the Chinese is contagious to the point that I feel emotionally moved by them just by your insights. The rising and falling linguistic tones have slain you as has the powerful meaning behind each pen stroke of a the quill. Again allow me to take a swipe at multiculturalism, a mostly US notion that all cultures are equal if they just have more money. This erases generations of cultural meaning, which, most likely, never fades away. We need to listen more to other cultures and not let our caricatured nose fall into our plates of self absorbed thinking.

    • Hmm, interesting take on nations that are equal in the US provided they have money. Never thought about that before!

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