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Board games to help pre-schoolers learn Mandarin

SINGAPORE — Instead of teaching children how to read Chinese language characters with Hanyu Pinyin and putting them through repetitive writing exercises, schools should focus more on their conversation skills if they want to cultivate a strong foundation for the language, experts say.

Board games to help pre-schoolers learn Mandarin

Children at My First Skool in Yung An Road trying out one of the card games. Photo: Siau Ming En

SINGAPORE — Instead of teaching children how to read Chinese language characters with Hanyu Pinyin and putting them through repetitive writing exercises, schools should focus more on their conversation skills if they want to cultivate a strong foundation for the language, experts say.

“To these children, these are too abstract and are meaningless to them,” said Dr Connie Lum, Dean of Pre-school and Adjunct Lecturer at the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language, who spoke at the third International Conference on Teaching and Learning of Chinese as a Second Language yesterday.

Hanyu Pinyin, for example, sometimes confuses children, as the spelling can be the same as words in English even though they mean different things, such as “wo men”, which is the Hanyu Pinyin for “we” and the English word “women”.

Professor Cornelius Kubler from Williams College in the United States, who also spoke at the conference, said that pre-school children should learn the proper pronunciation of Mandarin words from teachers, parents or even recordings, instead of Hanyu Pinyin.

They should learn by listening and speaking, said Prof Kubler, who delivered his lecture in Mandarin.

Another speaker, Professor Tse Shek Kam from the University of Hong Kong, discouraged the rote learning of Chinese characters through repetitive writing exercises. Children, he said, learn better if what they are learning is related to their daily lives.

Dr Lum agreed and noted how pre-schools here sometimes get children to learn how to write their names in Chinese by writing them repeatedly.

Instead, teachers can use attendance-taking as an occasion for children to write their names, so that they understand the purpose of the exercise, she suggested.

Dr Lum also presented results from a first-of-its-kind study on the importance of the home environment for learning Mandarin among pre-school children.

The study, conducted in 2011 with 327 children, found that usage of Mandarin among children was low, especially at the younger age of three to four. For example, 36.5 per cent of those between three and four years old read Mandarin books at least once a week, lower than the 38 per cent of six-year-olds who do so.

Likewise, only 7.3 per cent of the younger group play computer games in Chinese at least once a week, compared to 10.6 per cent for six-year-olds.

The low figures, said Dr Lum, could be due to the fact that Mandarin books, computer games and cartoons are not easily available.

Hence, together with NTUC’s SEED Institute — which trains early childhood educators here — Dr Lum has created what is believed to be the first set of board games designed locally for pre-school children aged four to six years old to learn Mandarin.

“From our research, we noticed Chinese learning materials are rare, and we want to change that,” she said.

Sponsored by the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism, the Fun Games for Learning Mandarin set was launched at the conference yesterday and will act as a teaching aid to promote bilingualism and encourage children to speak Mandarin.

Each game varies in content and difficulty level, from simpler games like matching tools to the respective occupations, to identifying and forming sentences about various facilities in the neighbourhood. The games are also designed such that children have to converse in Mandarin with their partners.

Each set comes in a mix of card and board games. Within the set are two components for children at the nursery level and four each for those in the K1 and K2 levels.

Some 1,500 pre-schools, including those run by the PAP Community Foundation, NTUC First Campus and voluntary welfare organisations, will receive the games.

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