Learning Chinese Is Possible – 3 factors at work

Many colleagues and friends who know me for a number of years know that I converse in Mandarin quite frequently. A number assumed that I must be very competent in the language given that I can read and speak it rather effortlessly. It is natural to assume that I am effectively bilingual.

Yet that is not always the case for me.

My Experience With Chinese

I had difficulty learning Chinese when young. In fact, learning languages was a handicap for me. I cannot remember much of what my language teachers taught me in school. (I am so sorry, but really, nothing sticks.) My earliest memory of learning Chinese was on a Saturday when I was in Primary 6. It was in this class where I realised that radicals put together will form Chinese characters. It was a revelation to me. That shows how bad my written Chinese was.

The main reason why I could do relatively well in my Chinese Language examinations then was because I could listen and speak in the language fluently. I have to give credit to my parents, who would converse with me in Chinese all the time. The second advantage I had was a cable broadcast station my parents subscribed to in my childhood days. Rediffusion accompanied me in my growing years, where I would hear popular Chinese songs and radio deejays engaged in conversations. That was how I could grasp some aspects of the language.

My appreciation of the Chinese Language grew over the teenage years, when I moved to a more Chinese-saturated schooling environment in my high school days. Being immersed in an environment where many peers are very strong in the language and where we commemorate Chinese cultural festivals helped tremendously. It didn’t help in my academic performance though, but looking back, I think that was the period when I acquired an appreciation of my Chinese culture.

That may explain why even though I didn’t really use Chinese much when I studied overseas, I could still read and write in the language when needed. I feel comforted whenever I come across Chinese characters overseas though. Chinatown was my favourite weekend hangout in my undergraduate days in London, where I obtained groceries and soaked in a familiar Chinese culture (although the Chinese culture in London has more of a Hong Kong and China flavour). Boston’s Chinatown was another favourite hangout during my Masters course.


Different Generation, Different Experiences

Why am I writing about this? Looking at my children and how they are learning Chinese today reminded me of my own experience, and the contrast with my children’s. My three children are picking up Chinese in different ways from me.

My mother looked after my oldest child for around four years. Those times spent with my mother meant my child was almost fully immersed in Chinese. This gave her a good foundation for Chinese. My daughter did not know a lot of English words when she first went to kindergarten. To illustrate this vividly: on her first day of school, she could not even speak with her teacher and classmates because they were speaking in English.

As time progressed however, my oldest child improved in her English. Reading was the one main activity that helped her with the language. In comparison, because she did not read Chinese books, and spent comparatively less time using Chinese daily, her grasp of the language became weaker. At this point in time, while she has a good grasp of the language because of her teachers, she hardly uses the language both in and outside of home.

My second child was the opposite. She knew more English than Chinese when young. But like her older sister, she would hang out with her grandmother, eventually hanging out every weekend. I term those weekends as CLIP – Chinese Language Immersion Programme. The weekends were when she applied what she learnt in school, conversing with my parents and reading and watching Chinese TV programmes.

Right now because of her impending national examinations, my second daughter asked how she could improve in her language. I suggested that she read Chinese books that interest her, which she did. She started borrowing Chinese books from the local library, and her Chinese teacher gave her an abridged version of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms to read as well.

The youngest, perhaps because he is the youngest, does not fancy Chinese for now. The only Chinese stuff he is into current are 1) Mandopop songs and 2) Zaobao website (because of the games available). The former was because I planned to stream Mandopop hits from Spotify at home, mainly to provide a rather Chinese home environment. The latter was due to a subscription initiated by the school to interest the children in learning the language.

Still, this youngest kid is not taking to Chinese well. Reading and writing remain key challenges for him. His listening and speaking skills are moderate for a child his age in Singapore. I guess I will need to keep helping him develop an interest in the language in different ways. Just recently, I asked him to translate a Chinese story in English, and I read it back to him to help him understand his reading pattern. He seemed to develop some awareness of his reading skills from there.


Language Acquisition – What May Work

Looking back at my experience and what my children are going through now, I have some takeaways on what are positive factors that enables one to learn a second language. Although Chinese is meant to be my native language, because of the unique environment I am in, English as the official working language has dominated the society for a number of decades. Hence what I described below will be what I consider as enabling factors for learning a second language.

1. To learn a language well, have prolonged exposure to it. This is true in learning a second language especially, since learners will not have a total immersive environment to solidify their command of the language. My own experience and my oldest child’s experience bore testimony to that. Depending on the nature of exposure, one or a few aspects of the language skills will be strengthened. Speaking and listening frequently increases the likelihood of conversational fluency. Reading books will augment the vocabulary bank and comprehension ability.

2. The teacher must have good judgment in knowing how to reach out to the learners. My Chinese teachers had a hard time with me in the past. I could not understand much of their lessons. Yet the times when I did understand was because they figured out ways to reach out to me. I got by because I had the home environment to support. My children by contrast were more fortunate. Their teachers engaged them with ways to learn. My youngest kid had the chance to play language games, while the second kid enjoyed listening and watching music videos.

3. The learner must have a strong desire to learn and use the language. This is very important. Language skills acquired but not used are dead. More importantly is that the learner must have a strong desire to want to learn the language. For me it was an interest in the culture – the contemporary songs of my times, the movies I watched, and the cultural festivals. For my children, it was the storyline in the songs and books they come across. Applying language skills is then key to reinforcing what they learnt. Be it writing out cards, singing the songs or even speaking with others, using the language has to be a constant.


Language acquisition takes place over a lifetime. It is not what you learnt during schooling years alone. Admittedly the ability to pick up language is best in the younger ages, but you need a good foundation as well.

If you are interested to pick up a language in your later years, go ahead and so so. A desire to learn will be better than the absence of a conducive learning environment.

How do you learn a language? What would you do to pick up a language? Is learning Chinese any different from learning a European language, for example?

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