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Acquiring a Second Language

This weekend, we’re discussing learning by living.  Previously, we discussed age-appropriate chores and making work fun for small children.  I loved hearing about how you encourage real life learning and fun with your kids.

Along the vein of living and learning, acquiring a foreign language is invaluable.  It offers one the opportunity to think from a different perspective, and to travel unfettered to other countries where the language is spoken.  Is that the type of skill you would love to provide for your child?


I’m half-Chinese…hence my name: Dolly.  It’s easily pronounced in Chinese and English.  The Chinese meaning behind my name is more thoughtful and rich than its English counterpart (“wise jasmine flower”, in case you were wondering).  My parents rarely spoke to us in Chinese when my sister and I were little.  Usually, they only spoke to each other at a very fast cadence.  I do recall a handful of vocabulary words that my mother reiterated with me while I was growing up.

She was intent on improving her English, so she spoke English at home as often as possible.

My sister and I traveled to Taiwan (my mother’s native country) when I was 9 years-old.  In two weeks time, I was very conversant in Mandarin and Taiwanese, but since the languages were often intermixed by my relatives, I didn’t know one language from the other.  But, I understood what they were saying, and I could speak and sing well enough for native speakers to understand me.

Then, we returned home to the U.S.A where Chinese was completely foreign and weird to my small-town Texas classmates.  They laughed at me and called me names, and I dropped my Chinese tongue faster than you can say, “Scrat!”

Peer pressure stinks.

Then, I grew up.

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to take language and culture classes at a university in China.  It was a LOT harder to absorb the language as an adult compared to when I was a child, and I could simply soak it up like a sponge.  Living in foreign student housing with several other Americans meant that I didn’t have as much opportunity to use Chinese compared to English.  All my Chinese friends wanted to practice their English, too.  So, I got a great cultural education, but my Chinese skills didn’t improve as much as I’d hoped.

A few years later, I returned to my mother’s homeland of Taiwan to visit my family.  This time, I could get by in Mandarin, and I could distinguish the difference between the Taiwanese and Mandarin when my mother and aunts would flow in and out of each dialect from minute to minute.

My husband Steve and I at the Great Wall in 2006

A year later, I traveled with my husband and 4 other chiropractic school students plus a spouse to assist at a chiropractic clinic in Sichuan province, China.  My husband and I had to use our very broken and elementary Chinese to safely lead a group of people from one end of the country to another by plane, bus, and taxi.  We never got lost, and we made it to our checkpoints on time.  But, it was hard.  My brain was performing mental gymnastics with translations–my head hurt.


Learning a second language isn’t much different for children than learning the first one.  Pronunciation may still be a little off, but they quickly pick up the names of things and those names and words are reinforced even stronger through memorable songs.

As part of his cultural heritage, and the fact that one-fifth of the world’s population speaks Chinese, we want to encourage our son to begin learning Chinese now.

For Calvin, it’s not exactly rigorous work, learning is fun!  I’ve taught Calvin some of the basic nouns for body parts, favorite foods, and a few verbs for basic greetings and polite phrases.

A great method to teach Chinese to young children is the DVD and flashcard immersion system Baby Learns Chinese–developed by Hong Kong-based mother of two, Yama Chan.

According to Ms. Chan, “I created the program to teach children of native and non-native speakers the language.  Our program has had strong success in Hong Kong, and we are excited to share the learning with parents in the US.”

This creative system to teach Chinese to young children is inspired by Dr. Glenn Doman’s book How to Teach Your Baby to Read.

Baby Learns Chinese is targeted at children ages 0 to 6.  Popular childrens’ tunes are sung with Chinese lyrics and set to colorful animation, photographs of associated objects or actions, and video images of children performing an action in relation to a Chinese phrase such as touch your nose, or touch your knees, etc.

There are over ten products in the system to provide children a basic grasp of the language (and parents can perfect their pronunciation).  The entire system teaches children over 400 words in Mandarin Chinese through six DVDs.  English subtitles are available to assist parents (I keep them in simplified or traditional Chinese).

For older children, ages 4-12, there’s a 2-disc DVD set for kids to learn Chinese pronunciation through an alphabet-based phonetics system called Pinyin.

From my experience of learning Pinyin (based on the pronunciation of the Cyrillic alphabet), it’s much easier to learn the words and tones or sounds by hearing, and not by reading.

Baby Learns Chinese sent us DVD 1 (body, counting, colour & shapes) and DVD 4 (sports) for review.

Each individual DVD has 1 or 3 episodes that run from 15-20 minutes.  The average running time per DVD is 40 minutes.  English subtitles are available, and each DVD allows the option to show characters in traditional or simplified Chinese (the pronunciation is the same for both).

Mom’s Perspective:

My son loves the songs sung by Chinese children, the video footage of children, and the easy-to-understand voice of the adult woman narrating the words.  All the images, words and phrases are reinforced with repetition and multiple images or videos.

My son eagerly asks for his “Chinese show” multiple times a day.  When the DVDs play, he repeats every single word after the narrator first says them.  Most of the time, he sounds just like the narrator, other times, I can tell he’s missing a nuance of pronunciation–but, he’s two years-old…we’re still working on English pronunciation, too!

Even when the Baby Learns Chinese DVDs aren’t playing, at random times throughout the day, he’ll speak in Chinese while pointing to his corresponding body part.  At age two, my son is becoming bilingual in a non-bilingual home.

I’m very pleased with the quality of these DVD’s.  Animation, photography, video, songs, and reinforced vocabulary through repetition is a fantastic method of learning.  We love the Baby Learns Chinese DVDs 1 and 4 so much that we’re going to purchase the others!

Buy it:

The 6 DVDs are available individually, or in two types of boxed sets.  The Blue Boxed Set includes the first 3 DVDs and the blue flash cards with traditional Chinese characters on one side, and simplified characters on the reverse ($68.99).  The Green boxed-set includes DVDs 4-6, plus the green box of flash cards ($68.99). Individual Baby Learns Chinese DVDs retail for $22.89 each.  They’re available directly through the Baby Learns Chinese website or through Amazon.com.

NOTE: I have not reviewed the flash cards with my son.  However, from the website, I can tell that they have either a simplified or traditional character on each side.  The flash cards would be more effective if the characters were combined with photographed images corresponding to the words.  I have seen the picture-word method work first-hand with my son regarding English words and reading.

YOUR TURN: Do you have a bilingual (or multilingual) home?  If not, at what age would you like to encourage your child to learn a second language?  What language teaching methods do you like or would you like to try with your child?

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