Once you have secured a place at the appropriate school and signed up for complementary extra-curricular activities to set your child on the path to learning Mandarin, you’ll soon become aware that there are lots of products and resources out there to boost your child’s learning of the language and to enrich their experience. But before you go out looking for apps and websites, you’ll need to understand some of the basics of how they are being taught, in particular whether your child is learning Mandarin using Zhuyin or Pinyin and whether they are learning the simplified or traditional version.
Zhuyin, also known as Bopomofo, and Pinyin are both phonetic forms of Mandarin − basic ways of writing the spoken language before undertaking the lengthy process of learning all the hanzi, or characters. Zhuyin, which is still used in Taiwan as a teaching aid for children, uses its own characters, whereas Pinyin uses the Roman alphabet. When your child is learning Chinese in school or university, he or she will most likely first learn one of these systems before progressing on to the Chinese characters themselves. While learning a phonetic alphabet is an essential part of learning Chinese, which one you learn will affect your pronunciation, reading ability, and how fast you learn.
While Pinyin might be easier for westerners to grasp from the outset, the use of the Roman alphabet to represent the Chinese sounds may have an adverse effect on pronunciation − and while having Chinese words written in recognisable script may aid initial learning, it can also hamper immersion in the new language. Zhuyin (which was used in mainland China until its replacement by its romanised cousin) is a Chinese phonetic alphabet providing you with a system of pronunciation that enables you to completely remove yourself from the influence of your native language.
Zhuyin characters are tucked in next to the full ones, almost becoming part of them − so it is virtually impossible to read the Zhuyin without being exposed to the Chinese. The result is that when reading Chinese, the reader of Zhuyin receives increased exposure and reinforcement of the Chinese characters, speeding up retention. The main setback of Zhuyin is that the learner must first memorise all of the characters that represent the Zhuyin alphabet.
Another thing to consider is that Pinyin-based learning materials are far more widely available than Zhuyin based materials. This means that you are more likely to find something that interests your child in Pinyin than in Zhuyin. Ultimately the decision on whether you learn in Pinyin or Zhuyin will most likely be the school’s, not yours, but it is something to be aware of.
Whether it’s Pinyin or Zhuyin, there may be times when your child could benefit from some extra support, information or simply having the language brought to life outside of the classroom.
Unlike my school days, when I had to rely on only a hardback dictionary and a grammar book to help my language learning, there are oodles and oodles of resources out there to bolster your child’s Mandarin learning. No doubt your child’s Chinese teachers will have their own favourite animated books, podcasts, apps, movies and Chinese “readers”, or books for early-stage learners, to recommend. Here are some of our favourite resources:
Mandarin Matrix provides resources specifically designed for children learning mandarin as a foreign language. These resources are available as printed reading books as well as online for early stage learners. The online classroom features hundreds of e-books for students to read, plus thousands of activities, games and tests. It can be used as an in-class learning tool, or at home as part of an additional learning homework program. It can be accessed anytime, anywhere and learning programs can be customised to fit each students needs and pace of learning.
The theme-based readers have 240 storybooks ranging from beginner to advanced. The readers are divided into six colour coded levels that aim to engage the student while systematically introducing new vocabulary, Chinese characters and grammar. Using a theme-based approach with over 1,600 characters that are common to most curricula worldwide, the readers start with basic vocabulary but develop through to advanced storylines based on complex historical and mythological Chinese tales.
There are also resources for students studying YCT levels 1-4, and for schools providing a dual language immersion curriculum.
This online learning tool works well both for students using Pinyin and those opting for Zhuyin.
Whether you like it or not, learning Mandarin requires the memorisation of lots of characters. It can be hard to do this alone. Quizlet is a mobile app that can aid in the process as it trains and tests students. Truly designed for the digital age, as well as digitally rendering paper predecessors such as flashcards and vocabulary lists, it is full of fun games and audio exercises that will blow the minds of anyone schooled more than a few years ago − for instance in “Gravity”, definitions scroll vertically down the screen in the shape of asteroids. The user must type the term that goes with the definition before it reaches the bottom of the screen.
Quizlet has become a hugely popular resource − it now boasts more than 100 million user-generated sets of digital flashcards − that allows you to track your progress in learning just about any subject, from medical students learning anatomy and Spanish students learning verbs to, of course, Mandarin students getting to grips with dozens and dozens of characters. www.quizlet.com
Pleco is an English and Chinese dictionary application for iOS and Android devices and a tool any Mandarin student shouldn’t be without. Pleco can work with Pinyin, Zhuyin, English words and handwriting. It has many sets of dictionaries, (from Oxford, Longman, FLTRP, Ricci etc), audio recordings from two different native speakers, and has flashcard functions and document readers that look up words in a document. Pleco is a free application with in-app purchases, additional functions and large dictionaries (English, French, German, Mandarin, Cantonese and classical Chinese). www.pleco.com.
This website, created by the Ministry of Education in Taiwan, helps you learn how to write characters in the correct way. It’s a learning programme to master the stroke order of frequently used Chinese characters and covers radicals, Zhuyin and Pinyin while also featuring teaching resources including the basic rules of stroke order. stroke-order.learningweb.moe.edu.tw
Google’s free service instantly translates words, phrases, and web pages between English and over 100 other languages − and these days you can use your phone’s camera to scan the Chinese script you’re looking at. This might be an obvious tool for this list but it’s surely one any modern-day Mandarin learner will want in his tool kit of resources. Google now boasts Chinese-to-English translation with near human-level accuracy, a huge advancement in artificial intelligence on just a few years ago, given the fiendish complexity of Mandarin Chinese and the many different meanings a word can take depending on which characters it is paired with. translate.google.com
Mandarin For Me
This website shares resources for learning and teaching Chinese. Check out the free books, posters, videos, games, and much more. It also offers lessons, which feature dual-language flashcards, interactive games and quizzes. The site’s mission is to help people learn Mandarin “the fun way” − and it also offers stories, songs and videos. mandarinforme.com
Max and Mei Storybooks
These books, recommended for children aged two – seven, have been created by acclaimed author Martha Keswick to provide parents with colourful and engaging bilingual stories they can share with their children. Max and Mei’s adventures captivate young children, with each book telling the tale of an encounter with a different animal of the Chinese Zodiac – plus one in which they meet a dinosaur.
Additional activity books teach children about colours, numbers, family and food, while game cards help children improve their Chinese language skills through play. mandarinmatrix.org/products/max-and-mei/
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