Diana Ser may be effectively bilingual, but like many parents in Singapore, she struggles to get her kids to love Mandarin. Jake is nine, Christy is seven, and Jaymee, four.
Her experience resulted in a website, Crazy About Chinese, where she posts videos on how she teaches youngest child Jaymee about Mandarin through everyday activities.
Diana shares more about her passion for inculcating a love of the language and culture in her kids:
Related story: Diana Ser: TV host, mummy and now, champion of Mandarin
Why do you think Jake and Christy are reluctant to speak Mandarin? What had you tried to do with them in the early years?
“I read to them in Mandarin, played Mandarin songs at home and in the car, sent them to Chinese play groups, watched Chinese programmes and spoke to them in Mandarin (though not as often as I would have liked). That still was not enough!
“I think it is partly because, in school, where they spend most of their time interacting with teachers and friends, English is most commonly used. In Singapore’s larger environment, one can get by without being able to speak Mandarin, so I reckon the kids are smart enough to understand that very quickly.”
Do boys need a different approach to learning Mandarin, compared to girls?
“I sent both my elder kids to Chinese enrichment classes when they were younger, and that helped academically, but it was just grades – they have not embraced the Chinese language.
“But I’ve tried and tested different approaches and eventually found something that works for my youngest, Jaymee. I used a ‘learn through play’ concept because, well, at this stage, kids – whether boys or girls – are interested only in play!
“It’s a long-standing idea that girls are naturally more adept at language than boys, but of course no two children are the same. There are many approaches, but the key is to start young, and start small.”
Jake and Christy are in primary school – and with that comes weekly ting xie tests, compositions and the stress of exams. How has that affected their attitude towards Mandarin?
“I’m not that worried about their academic grades for now, but I might start panicking once my eldest reaches his PSLE year! I’m happy with their grades – it’s just that I’m hoping that they accept the Chinese language a little more into their lives.
“Chinese is hard work, so when I grill them in their character strokes and sequence, they get frustrated and irritable.
“But I will persevere because it is not just about the grades or even being bilingual. It is about an attitude towards life where you must dig in your heels and get the basics right.
“I try to make it interesting for them. For example, my son’s Primary 4 textbook has a chapter on Marco Polo. We watch Chinese animation clips on Marco Polo, and I borrow books on Marco Polo so he learns beyond the textbook.”
Does the one-parent, one-language approach work for you?
“This is something we’re still trying out and the effects will not be immediate. For now, I try to speak as much Mandarin as I can, but sometimes I do forget! I have to give myself constant reminders.
“My kids answer in English most of the time, especially the elder ones. I just continue speaking in Mandarin, like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
“You can’t just force kids into doing things – it’ll just spark a negative association to learning. If your kids see that you’re putting in effort to speak Mandarin, I believe that they eventually will, too.”
What’s your advice for parents who aren’t even fluent in Mandarin?
“My Crazy About Chinese webisodes come with learning aids! It’s okay to copy the activities I’ve demonstrated in the videos – they are bite-sized and easy-to-follow even for parents who are not adept in Mandarin.
“After some feedback from other mummies and caregivers, I’ve also included hanyu pinyin in my learning aids recently to make it even easier.
“Raising a bilingual child is challenging and I’m still learning, too. The most important part of this Mandarin journey is having someone be there for you.
“I started the programme so that parents can connect with one another to offer support and be each other’s ‘cheerleader’ where we can share tips and ideas with each other.”
“For the older ones, one tip is to turn to online websites where animation shows you the correct strokes for Chinese characters. Just google ‘strokes Chinese characters’.”
Next page: Diana Ser's dos and don'ts for teaching Chinese