How to Learn Mandarin like a Child: Essential Principles

Do you envy that children can learn any spoken language with ease? Have you wondered if you could learn Mandarin like a child?

If you’re here to learn Mandarin, you probably didn’t grow up learning Mandarin as a child but you still can learn Chinese like a child. I want to help you do that.

Acquire the language, don’t be taught!

I’m a mom to two young children so I observe (and participate) first-hand, on a daily basis, how children learn a language, or two!

In this post, I want to share with you some important principles I’ve learned from my three-year-old daughter while she’s learning English as her first language and learning Mandarin as her second language. (Yes, she is technically a native English speaker and learning Mandarin as a second language like many of you.)

BTW, My three-year-old daughter is the primary reason why I started watching Peppa Pig, so in a sense she is a founding member of this website. Here is my PayPal donation link for you to contribute to her books and toys!! 😛 (I am just joking.)

Principle 1: Learn from contexts and not textbooks

Did you learn the grammar rules of your native language as a kid? No.

No Mandarin speakers would teach Chinese grammar rules to their young children either. Nobody would teach their kids the ten thousand ways to use 的 or 就 using curated examples.

I write about Chinese grammar rules both in show notes and in focused articles, but that’s because I am trying to help adult learners absorb the material. It is certainly not how children learn a language.

Children acquire a spoken language through contexts. They listen for and observe what is said, how it’s said and in what situation it is said. They then try to apply similar expressions to similar situations.

If you live in a Chinese-speaking environment, try to observe how native speakers use the language and try to mimic everything as much as you can.

Pay attention to when they use certain words and expressions and in what situations. Ask yourself why they do that, and ask yourself how you would say the same thing, and find the gap (feel free to post on the community forum here if you want help with this.)

What if you are not in a Chinese-speaking environment? You can acquire the language in a similar way through deliberately learning from children’s shows.

Children’s shows are fantastic for learning a language because they tend to use simple yet practical language. Toddler shows are even better. They likely have natural built-in repeats and well thought-out storylines, so that even young children, who are still developing basic language skills, can make sense of what’s going on.

With that said, don’t underestimate children’s shows. Can you hear all the words and tones in Peppa Pig? Can you understand everything? And are you able to use all the colloquial expressions in Peppa Pig in a conversation with a native Chinese speaker? Answer these questions honestly before you decide if you want to learn from more advanced media content.

(No, please don’t use how many Chinese characters you know to judge your level of mastery of Chinese.)

I recommend Peppa Pig Mandarin dub because it is full of real life situations and objects familiar to people who live in English speaking countries. (I must say they are sometimes too realistic! The screenwriting is brilliant.)

Because you’re already familiar with the scenarios and objects, you naturally can understand more of what’s going on. You can more easily observe what’s happening in the life of the Piggie family and make sense of the language accordingly.

Principle 2: Repeat and repeat the exact words and sentences

I read a lot to my children because it’s fun to read and it’s the thing parents should do to help their children learn a language. What I noticed with my daughter is that after I read a book many times to her, she remembers the exact words and sometimes the exact sentences.

Repeating really does wonders. If I make mistakes or skip words when I read, she would catch me and correct me on the spot! That’s one concrete piece of evidence to me that she is actually learning and absorbing the language while I read to her.

I’ve already shared that the secret to improving Mandarin pronunciation and mastery of tones is repeating after native speech. I built my PPM method for this website based on that principle, and I also shared several practical techniques to help you improve listening comprehension and speaking skill in Mandarin.

I hope you’ve heard me loud and clear that repeating is essential for developing listening comprehension and speaking skills.

I want to further make a point that repetitions are not just helpful but essential for building any language skills.

Repetitions are the secret behind how children acquire their first languages.

The first few times you go over any Peppa Pig clips you may pick up a few new words and phrases. Don’t just stop there! Keep repeating, keep reviewing!

The more you repeat, the more you will realize there is so much more you can learn beyond the new words: The way the words are put together, the situations in which the expressions are used, the intonations… The list is endless.

You should keep expanding your reach of the language but it is super important to thicken the pathways in your brain for the knowledge you have already acquired. The best way to do that is repetition.

If you have learned any instrument, you know the secret to making your performance sound better is to practice the pieces you already know. Heck, or just playing the scales! The repetitions done at the basic level are essential for helping you reach the next step in your learning journey.

Similarly, I would also recommend that you stick to a limited few learning resources if you really want results. Do your repeats. I recited a single textbook while I was learning English and it was extremely effective.

Principle 3: Don’t think Chinese is harder than English, or any other spoken language

The Chinese language has a notorious reputation for being difficult. It is intimidating, right? Don’t let it be!

Remember: All children grow up learning a spoken language no problem, let it be Chinese, English, Arabic, German, or any other language. Literally children can acqurie any language.

It’s a myth that Chinese is the most difficult language to learn. Just look at the countless Chinese children who are learning to speak Chinese no problem.

Thinking Mandarin is difficult to learn may make your learning journey more psychologically taxing. You may never start, you may give up too easily.

(With that said, if you are one of those people who derive joy from being really challenged, please feel free to tell yourself that Chinese is the most difficult language so you can brag about it. Any motivation is good in my books.)

Many aspects of Mandarin are actually quite easy, and easier than English.

Counting in Chinese is fairly easy compared to many other languages. My daughter can count in Chinese really really well, even better than in English by now. Because the number system in Chinese is highly straightforward and predictable.

In Chinese, verbs themselves don’t change depending on the tenses or who are using them. No conjugations! In English you’d change a verb such as “play” into “playing” or “played”. In Chinese, it’d always be 玩, but you add other characters to indicate the tense. This is way easier than languages with multiple verb forms (I’m thinking about French.)

No different cases for pronounces such as I or me, it’s always 我. Heck, even the female she and male he sound the same in Chinese (她 and 他). To refer to a group of people, just add 们 such as 我们 (we), 他们 (they). Also there is no difference between is/am/are.

You can learn Mandarin. Just start, with the first 20 hours you can get very very far.

I think the biggest barrier to learning Chinese may be the Chinese characters, which leads to my next point.

Principle 4: Don’t get too obsessed with learning Chinese characters

Just as English speaking children don’t start learning how to speak by learning how to spell, you don’t have to start with learning the Chinese characters.

I wrote an article on whether you could learn Mandarin without characters, the answer is generally no. However, I do believe that if your goal is to be able to converse in Mandarin, you should not get too obsessed with learning Chinese characters (especially how to write them).

If you want to speak Mandarin, I don’t recommend learning Chinese characters as a first step, nor do I recommend investing too much time mastering them such as learning how to use the right stroke to write the characters out.

Chinese characters are definitely important and will help you communicate in Mandarin as an adult. However, the problem is that there are way too many textbooks and learning resources that teach you the characters and everything else at the same time, and it could be overwhelming.

If your primary goal is to read and write in Chinese, for sure you have to learn the characters. Even then, I would suggest you learn to type Chinese first, instead of investing a lot of time upfront to learn to write them. I wrote about my reasoning in this article as well.

To learn to speak the Chinese language, focus on listening comprehension and speaking skills more!

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