What are the main difficulties for children learning Mandarin?

31 May 2016

Xing Li teaches 5 - 7 year olds at Bury Grammar School and shares her experiences.

Before tackling Chinese characters, most people learn to understand the spoken language. Fortunately, you can use Chinese phonetics by using Latin letters to learn how to pronounce Mandarin (Pinyin). So, at an age when children are familiar with Latin letters, they can read and therefore pronounce Mandarin in Chinese phonetics.

My time at Bury Grammar School, where I teach children from Year1 to Year3, has been a great opportunity to pursue the research towards my Master’s degree. I aim to look at the difficulties English speaking children face when learning Mandarin and the findings at such a crucial age for language learning are fascinating. 

First of all, there are some words that children can pronounce correctly without any difficulties. For example ??mama (mum) , ?lóng (Chinese dragon), ?lín(forest). The students are very happy if they can pronounce them correctly and it fills them with confidence.

Then, there are some Mandarin words that are pronounced in the same way as an English word. For example ?mèi(younger sister)and may, ?gòu(enough) and go, ?hào (date) and how. Although it can be confusing, it helps the teacher explaining the sound of the word. 

It challenges a teacher mostly when the children are questioning the meaning of English and Mandarin words. For example, they see ??women(we)and ask me ‘why women would means us? We are girls and boys.’ in which case, I try to put the theory into practice with a few games that will make them understand the differences.

Lastly, I found that there are Mandarin words that can be recognised just by hearing the pronunciation. Before I teach the children the Chinese phonetics systematically, I had them participate in a small quiz. I read out 60 mandarin words that they have not learned before, three times and asked the students to choose the correct Chinese pinyin just according to the pronunciation. Results show that just over 30% of Chinese words written in pinyin were chosen correctly.

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