We actually didn’t speak any Mandarin to Nikita until she turned 16 months old. The reason being that Nikita was a high need baby and we wanted her to know how to express her needs to us as early as possible. We were afraid that speaking to her in two very different languages might make her confused and we would have problems in understanding her too.
By 16 month old, she could express herself really well so I started to teach her some simple Mandarin – like Chinese names of the body parts, fruits and clothing etc but the progress was really slow. I was still speaking to her in English mostly because I thought it would be overwhelming for her if I suddenly switch to speak to her in some “alien” language. The first few weeks of learning were really slow because she had no interest in the language and her concentration was really lacking. So, I had to change my strategy. I noticed that she picked up things faster and would give me her concentration during our 30-45mins of bedtime “chat”. So I used that time to teach her the Chinese names of her body parts, her name, bed, pillow, blanket (and anything that I could teach her in the dark) etc and sing her Chinese songs, while lying down on the bed with her.
I know Nikita loves animals and doodling. So, I began to draw animals for her and teach her the names of each animal in Chinese. She learnt faster through the drawings. Because children learn faster through visual aids, I put up all the drawings that we drew together on the walls and whenever I have the opportunity, I would name an animal for her to point out to me. She loves this pointing game and felt very happy whenever she got it right. I think this game actually makes her feel more confident and interested in the language.
Since young, Nikita has always enjoyed music. So, I began to sing a lot of new Chinese songs to her. But singing alone is not enough, so I found some Chinese websites for some songs with flash animations. I would watch the flash videos and sing along with her. Once she is familiar with the songs, I printed out the materials and pasted them on the wall. That way, she could relate to the songs without the need to watch the flash video. Sometimes, I would do silly dance or movements with her when we are singing too.
Although watching too much TV programs is not good for children, but that is the easiest way for them to pick up any language. So, I began to watch some Chinese cartoons with Nikita. Of course, she would not understand when she first watches the program, so I had to explain to her. By the second or third time, she had no problem in understanding the story anymore and hence that was when she started to pick up the spoken language portion, and not just names of objects. So, I 打铁乘热, took the opportunity to speak more Mandarin to her and encourages her to speak more Mandarin to me too.
When I noticed that she has no problems in understanding me when I speak to her in Mandarin, I decided that it was time for me to start reading Chinese storybooks to her. I find that if I always choose the simple board book to read to her, she has absolutely no interest in them and it would also make learning so boring. So, I pick those books that have a storyline like the Chinese version of Little Red Riding Hood etc. Now, she loves the Chinese storybooks as much as the English ones.
That’s pretty much what I did to make Nikita interested in learning Chinese. I know every child is different in terms of learning so you have to find the right approach for your child. Just remember that a child will only learn faster if she is interested, so you should try to make learning fun for her.