Introducing Mandarin to Young Learners

Posted by BASIS.ed on February 25, 2020 at 3:03 PM

Most BASIS Charter Schools teach Mandarin, beginning as early as kindergarten. Learning Mandarin, particularly at an early age, has multiple benefits. Not only is it the most widely spoken language worldwide, but neurological studies show that Mandarin’s linguistic qualities as a tonal language benefit students in ways that English, as a non-tonal language, cannot.

The tonal language

Mandarin is notoriously tough for native English speakers to master, so why do BASIS Charter Schools teach it in the primary grades? The brain is most receptive to learning while primary language skills are developing. Pitch and tone is also refined during this critical period in early childhood. So, the sooner a child is introduced to Mandarin the easier, and the more effective, it will be.

Mandarin teacher

Early childhood is ideal for introducing language, particularly tonal language, as children are especially aware of slight nuances in sound, and are able to adapt and recreate sounds more naturally. BASIS Scottsdale Primary East students Lina and Scarlett started learning Mandarin in kindergarten; their tones are tuned and their tongues are well-trained. They have a lot of patience when helping their parents correctly pronounce Mandarin words, but sometimes can’t restrain their laughter when it proves too great a challenge.

Adults struggle to recreate the tonal qualities of language, and may not be tuned in to pitch variation. Unfortunately, each syllable can take any of four tones, which are as important to a word’s definition as the phonetic pronunciation. For example, depending on tone, the word “ma” is pronounced and translated four different ways, to mean “mother,” “hemp,” “scold,” and “horse.”

Tuning in

If you’ve ever listened to the melodic babbling of a six-month-old baby testing out pre-language communication skills, you’ve witnessed the natural musical and tonal qualities practiced in early speech. Non-tonal languages flatten out, reserving tone fluctuation for emphasis or intent, rather than word meaning.

Familiarity and fluency with tones and sounds in tonal languages like Mandarin strengthens musical ability. In fact, research at the University of California at San Diego showed a strong link between fluency in a tonal language and the presence of absolute pitch—an indicator of advanced cortical processes and finely tuned brain circuitry.

Character evaluation

Mandarin has no alphabet, and is represented by about 60,000 characters. Interpreting the thousands of visual symbols that give meaning to the characters activates more of the brain than the English phonetic alphabet can. Learning Mandarin trains the eye to be sensitive to the visual nuances of art, symbolism, and written language.

Hand-eye coordination

Mandarin characters, unlike our alphabet, are written in multiple directions, using brush or pen strokes applied with varied pressure, and in a specific stroke order. Learning to write such a way develops fine motor skills and spatial recognition.

Cerebral balance

A recent MIT study published by the National Academy of Sciences, revealing how different parts of the brain are tapped when speaking Mandarin versus English, confirms what you may already be thinking. Chinese speech comprehension engages not only more of the brain but also areas in both hemispheres, whereas English speech comprehension occurs almost entirely in the left hemisphere. The brain’s right hemisphere is credited with creative processing in areas such as music and art.

Our global future

China is increasingly relevant in the world today. At BASIS Scottsdale Primary East, Brian Chow teaches Mandarin for four different grade levels. “Knowing how to speak and understanding Chinese culture give the Mandarin speaker a head start on the competition,” says Mr. Chow. He learned Mandarin firsthand, living in China for 20 years before moving to the U.S.—now over 40 years ago. His experience and fluency in both languages provide a unique perspective and ability to reach the students.

Mr. Chow enjoys making it fun for students to learn this important language that is also so vastly different from English. He taught at three other schools before joining BASIS Charter Schools. “This school is unique,” he explains. “The students here like to learn.” And BASIS Charter School teachers love teaching students who want to learn.students learning Mandarin

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Topics: For Everyone