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Monday, May 17, 2010

Chinese is a Joy

Having sacked Grandma as our Chinese Tutor here (blogpost entitled "Chinese is a Pain"), I refused to believe that my children were too stupid to learn Chinese.

My kids are straight A students in every other subject. My kids get chosen to take part in national competitions and THEY WIN! My kids fly off to Europe to present research papers they wrote themselves. My kids take part in research conferences and get commended.

My kids are not stupid... and nothing ... but nothing... can shake a mother's faith in them. I began to teach Little Boy myself, having identified the flaws in Grandma's approach.

She taught everything out of context. She gave my children lists and lists of words to copy and memorise. They could copy and memorise all they wanted but they would never learn because it is difficult to remember decontextualized words. Our brains are wired to remember by association, and whilst a Chinese-speaking child has already associated each word in the list with its appropriate context, my children COULD NOT because they don't speak the language at home.

When I took over, I replaced "ting xie" with "mo xie". I took the stack of model compositions that the teacher gave us, and I made Little Boy read them aloud to me... and memorise them... and write them all out. All Grandma had to do was mark them.

She worked on one skill at a time. Copy... copy... copy... Memorise... memorise... memorise... Learn meaning... learn meaning... learn meaning. This bores the brain. When you bore the brain, it switches off and even an intelligent person like The Daughter becomes stupid. To learn, the brain must be awake and to keep it awake, it must be required to enact multiple skills. It's tiring, but it works.

I got Little Boy to read Chinese storybooks and write summaries. This requires multiple skills. You need to recall and reproduce the characters. You need to understand the text. You need to draw out the key points. You need to understand the context. You need to create your own sentences. It's interesting for the brain.

To manage the difficulty levels posed by the convergence of these multiple skills, we chose somewhat easy texts... cartoons... thin books with lots of pictures. Interesting books. He read each summary to me. Each reading was proof that he had read the whole book.

I didn't care that I knew not enough to correct him. I wanted him to read tons of stories. Through reading, I made sure that he developed a context for the lists of disembodied chinese characters he had to memorise. Learning word lists became meaningful. It took a shorter time to prepare for class "ting xie" because he could now associate each word he was memorising with a context in a story read some time ago.

She chose all my children's reading materials and imposed them. They didn't like the stories she liked and reading Chinese storybooks became a chore, not a pleasure. Grandma believed that all good stories needed to have a moral. Over time, I was lead to believe that no one wrote interesting children's books in Chinese... and Chinese children's literature was full of ideal moral standards that Chinese adults don't adhere to.

I asked The Daughter to choose Chinese story books with Little Boy. I gave her one brief. Find something about a naughty someone who gets into trouble all the time. They came home with a treasure trove of books that I never knew existed in Chinese literature. There exists plenty of children's stories that appealed to Little Boy!! Stories about naughty someones who get into trouble at every turn.

Yummy stories! Lovely prose whose music charmed even me. Chinese is a tonal language. There is music in it that mesmerises and captivates.

Grandma worked harder than Little Boy. If a student is to learn more, the Teacher must teach less. Grandma spent hours manufacturing word cards for Little Boy to memorise. These were the must-know words from the textbook. At the end of it all, Grandma knew the textbook inside out. Little Boy knew nothing.

I made Little Boy craft his own cards, asking him to identify what he thought to be "important words" in the textbook. I made Little Boy sit with me and teach me those words. I don't know how much I learnt. But he sure did learn all the words.

After 4 months, Little Boy began scoring in the 90s for "ting xie". After 6 months, Little Boy achieved his very first 100% in his class "ting xie"... He recently scored full marks in his Chinese Listening Comprehension mid-year exam...

Today, he spends a quarter of the time he used to spend on Chinese... and his grades are way higher than they used to be when he spent 2 hours every day on it. Best of all, Little Boy actually looks forwards to Chinese exams... and he enjoys reading Chinese books... and he is proud of his hard work and results.

Mind you... I, who teach him, am illiterate in Chinese. I should have sacked Grandma when The Daughter was small. But I was a young mother and not confident enough to stand up to Grandma.

It is also gratifying when Grandma acknowledged that for some strange reason, my method works.


Blur Ting said...

Wow, I like all your methods! And you're a creative and determined mother. Bravo!

petunialee said...

Thanks Ting! You're such a blessing. I was afraid I was gonna get flamed for writing what I did about Mother Tongue...

Sadly, I wasn't determined enough to save The Daughter. In secondary school, it is far too late to help her.

Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...

WOOHOO!!!! *waves fist*

oops. *ahem*

i always love a victory against the old. rebellious naughty youth rearing its horns in my heart again. kekekeke.....

i think it's better to save one than lose two. =)

Malar said...

Wow! You are great teacher indeed!!! Thumb up to you!

petunialee said...

Fry - :-)

petunialee said...

Malar - Thank you... not so much I think, as a great teacher... but a VERY desperate Mother. Hahaha!

lemongrass said...

Enjoy reading these two blogs.. You are so inspiring.. you have always been an inspiration to others

petunialee said...

Lemongrass - Your comment disappeared into cyberspace!! I tried publish it but it's gone!

Anyway, thank you. You are an inspiration to me!!

Wen-ai said...

Wow... I am inspired by your teaching methods! Very creative. I must save this particular post if I ever have to save my little ones' chinese.

petunialee said...

Wen-ai, thanks for coming by... I forgot to write that throughout the whole journey of learning Chinese with me, I was very encouraging and patient. I made sure he knew how difficult I thought it was... We climbed a mountain together Little Boy and I.

lemongrass said...

^_^ Hi Petunia.. Oh... ok.. No worries... But glad you saw my comments earlier.. I am too modest to inspire you..but thank q so much for being kind.. I have definitely learnt a lot from you..

jedi49 said...

ok fine no straight A's for my kid.

My kid is not clever
He said only Ah Ma and Aunty watch channel 8

But Grandma refuses to believe kid cannot pick up any chinese.

Grandma is persistent
She change tactics

She knows that if she dont know english she can never teach kid chinese.

So she learn alphabets
She get chinese books with english translation
She watch english movies with chinese subtitles
She ask kids questions
She ask me questions

After 6 months, she can talk to her grandson in english

She is 76 yrs old

She can speak broken english and very proud of it.

Kid still refuses to speak chinese
but is proud of Ah ma.

And me - Like son like father - cannot speak chinese

Doesnt matter - We are proud of Ah Ma.

She change tactics

petunialee said...



I am proud of your Grandma too!! Whoa! What a gal!!

decheng said...

so ur grandmom is successful as well- but successful in her own learning of English..

natnosneb said...

Hi Petunia,

Your blog is a godsend. Can you please let me know what are the titles of the Chinese books you use with Ah Boy, those that he actually enjoys reading?

It would be a great help to me. Merci!

petunialee said...

natnosneb - 笑猫日记 is a rather popular series by the China author 杨红樱... and ma2 xiao3 tiao4.