The battle to speak Mandarin

Getting children to chat in Mandarin is a struggle, even for parents who are fluent in the language

My husband has a bunch of old friends whom he catches up with about once a year, usually during Chinese New Year.

What I find refreshing about these gatherings is that the gang of his ex-schoolmates from the former Chinese High and Hwa Chong Junior College always converses in Mandarin.

I attended schools where the students were more au fait with Cyndi Lauper than xinyao (Chinese ballads by Singapore youth). Then I went on to write for English publications for a living.

So even though I was weaned on Channel 8 dramas, my friends have always been more of the Channel 5 crowd.

At a gathering over the festive period, I again found myself marvelling at the Hwa Chong group as they chatted fluently in Mandarin.

This time I noticed something else. Each time their kids went to talk to them, they would invariably switch to English.


What hope is there for Singapore if even the Chinese intelligentsia do not speak Mandarin with their kids, I prodded my husband later that night. It may have been in jest but the question was underlined by serious worry.

Having grown up speaking Mandarin at home, my husband and I decided early on to do the same with our two kids, eight and five now.

That the language boasts economic value because of a resurgent China is only a bonus. It remains the language closest to our hearts. More than good grades, we would love for our children to forge the same emotional ties with their mother tongue and grow to appreciate its poetic beauty.

Our plan started off well. From the time they were babies, my husband and I made it a point to speak mainly Mandarin to and around them. English is the lingua franca of the world which they will pick up in no time, we figured. Better to work on their Chinese first.

My mum, who looked after my son and daughter when I was working full-time, turbocharged our efforts by speaking and reading to them in Mandarin. A Nantah graduate, she was the best mentor I could hope for, playing Chinese word games and introducing them to Chinese calligraphy.

Then they started school and the tide turned.

While I grew up with pals who spoke basic Mandarin at the very least, my kids have no one to practise the language with these days other than us and the grandparents.

In the last population census in 2010, English was the most frequently used language at home for 51.9 per cent of Chinese Singapore residents aged five to 14, a jump from 35.8 per cent in 2000.

For many kids today, Chinese has been relegated to a sort of trying second-class language, used only when in class. As it is notoriously difficult to master, it has become a yoke rather than my children's default communication tool - despite our best efforts.

Now in Primary 3, my son constantly moans about how much Chinese homework he has to do.

Spelling includes longer phrases as well as mo xie, which requires writing a few sentences from memory. There is also the weekly xi zi (Chinese writing) practice, which can take him two hours to finish. The language is now associated with toil and trouble, and any pep talk about taking pride in roots and cultural heritage is simply Greek to my kids.

Experts estimate that competence in Mandarin takes 2,200 class hours, with half of that time spent in a country where it is spoken. A language such as Spanish can be learnt in 600 to 750 class hours - around a third of the time.

Growing up, my husband and I had no choice but to hone our Mandarin as our parents were not fluent in English. Our TV and radio sets were tuned perpetually to Mandarin stations. I also had easy access to Chinese newspapers and my parents' wealth of cultural knowledge.

Despite countless reminders to my children to jiang huayu (speak Mandarin), they lapse into English because they know we understand them just as well.

My husband and I are also not exactly the best role models. Having spent most of our lives reading, writing and conversing in English in school and at work, our Chinese vocabulary is now woefully lean. We often give up using Mandarin with each other in serious discussions because the right terms elude us.

Like most Chinese Singaporeans, my Mandarin is riddled with English, and my English peppered with Singlish.

Alarmed by our children's growing resistance to Mandarin, my husband and I decided to act.

We launched our own Speak Mandarin campaign last year, where everyone speaks only Mandarin on certain days.

If the kids lapsed into English, I would make them repeat the offending sentences in Mandarin till they got them right. My husband, the tiger dad, would sometimes make them write lines - in Chinese.

The plan did not yield the desired results. To my kids, the Chinese millstone only grew heavier.

Instead of continuing to describe the highs and lows of their day, their chatter would dry up the minute I issued the reminder - jiang huayu. Their vocabulary simply failed them.

So I tried a different tack.

I would let them chirp on in English, but break in with Chinese translations here and there and have them repeated once.

This too backfired. "Mama, can you stop interrupting?" they would grumble, before clamming up.

I relented. It would be a far greater loss if my demands for untainted Mandarin turned them off confiding freely in me.

These days, we are far less rigid.

We might ask that the whole family converse in Mandarin for one meal of the day, and casually offer translations when English creeps in. Or we would hold impromptu quizzes on the Chinese names of, say, various fruits or animals.

Having them speak some Mandarin consistently is better than nothing, we figure, and so we soldier on.

If we strive to set a good example by using the language often enough with each other, hopefully something will stick with them.

The key, as my daughter's kindergarten Chinese teacher advises, is to work the language into everyday life so that it comes alive for them instead of remaining a dreaded school subject.

So in the lead-up to Chinese New Year, we took them to the festive bazaar in Chinatown and fed them trivia about familiar goodies, plants and cultural icons - all in Mandarin.

I read Chinese storybooks more regularly to them now and allow them a bit more time on the iPad if they play Chinese word games.

I'm also constantly on the lookout for family-friendly movies, songs and other multimedia content that make the language more accessible to them. Bilingual ex-TV host Diana Ser, for instance, has a website called Crazy About Chinese, which has short, engaging video clips that are especially helpful for piquing the interest of younger children.

We also recently caught the first instalment of the Ah Boys To Men film trilogy on cable TV, and my kids have been asking to watch the other two parts since.

The Singlish dialogue and pronunciation would probably confound native speakers of both English and Mandarin, but at least my kids understood enough of the Chinese bits to enjoy the movie and repeat some of the phrases that tickled them.

Our Speak Mandarin campaign might not be a lost cause after all.

• Tee Hun Ching, a former editor and copy editor with The Straits Times, is now a freelance journalist.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2016, with the headline The battle to speak Mandarin. Subscribe