Mandarin lessons for tiny tots, some barely a year old

Head teacher Wang Mengxi (back to camera) and assistant teacher Diao Kejia teaching Chevonne Chia, three; Luke Teo (centre), two; and Ezra Siew, two, about oral hygiene at EduGrove Mandarin Enrichment Centre
Head teacher Wang Mengxi (back to camera) and assistant teacher Diao Kejia teaching Chevonne Chia, three; Luke Teo (centre), two; and Ezra Siew, two, about oral hygiene at EduGrove Mandarin Enrichment Centre.ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Some parents are sending their tots, some barely a year old, for mother-tongue classes in the hope that giving them a head start would help them master the language more easily.

Luke Teo, two, took his first Mandarin lesson when he was just 10 months old.

His father, who had spent his early years in the United States, understood the struggles of learning the language only in primary school.

"We speak mainly English at home so we were worried that Luke would lag behind in the Chinese department," said Luke's grandmother, Madam Jennifer Chew, 56.

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The housewife said she knows of friends who migrated because their children could not cope with the mother-tongue curriculum.

Twice a week, the toddler attends a Mandarin playgroup at EduGrove Mandarin Enrichment Centre in Pasir Ris, where he learns the language through song, dance and stories, while accompanied by his grandmother or the family's domestic helper.

Mr Jerry Theseira, managing director of EduGrove Mandarin Enrichment Centre, said each playgroup, catering to children aged one to three, started with three to four children in 2013. Now there are about 10 children in each of the three groups.

 

"As parents get more educated, they will see the importance of exposing their child to their mother tongue early. I believe many parents already feel it is important but still don't find such classes affordable," said Mr Theseira. Each session at EduGrove costs $45.

Mr Raymond Cai, founder of YouLe Mandarin Centre, said five children were enrolled in his centre's parent-accompanied playgroup in 2015, when the centre opened. Today he has nearly 20 children, making up 40 per cent of the Tanglin Road centre's total enrolment. "It is partly due to the kiasu nature. Parents think that since their kids will have to be tested academically on the language eventually, why not help them be good at it early on," he said.

His youngest pupil is aged one, though he often gets requests from parents wanting to start their kids on lessons earlier. He will ask such parents to wait because children that young find it hard to concentrate.

A search on the Internet found at least six language centres offering Mandarin classes for children under two years old, two of which enrol babies at six months of age.

Malay and Tamil classes for babies were far harder to find.

But Madam Devi Murugesan of the Jai Learning Hub, who runs Tamil classes for children from nursery to those taking their A levels, agreed that parents these days are seeking mother-tongue classes for their children earlier.

She has about 40 three-year-old pupils, up from five about 10 years ago. "Parents used to rush to enrol their children only during exam time and then disappear after that," said Madam Devi.

Samantha Boh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2017, with the headline 'Mandarin lessons for tiny tots, some barely a year old'. Print Edition | Subscribe