For many of us, the thought of teaching our kids a foreign language can be overwhelming but especially when it comes to a language that includes characters NOT found in the English language.
Today's interview with Jace Chong flips the script on what is possible when it comes to teaching kids Mandarin. As an educator and mama currently raising her son to speak English and Mandarin, she shares the tips that has worked for her own family, but also the the families of her students - kids aged 6 months to 10 years at her Mandarin Playgroup based out of London.
She shares 3 reasons why she believes that Mandarin has become one of the most important languages of this generation and why there has been a surge in people teaching their kids Mandarin from an early age.
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Shannon Kelly: 00:00 Hi Jace. Thank you for joining me today. It's so lovely to have you with me.
Jace Kemel: 00:05 Thank you. Thank you Shannon for inviting me and I'm very honored to be able to be on your podcast. Thank you so much.
Shannon Kelly: 00:12 Well, I'm actually really excited to be able to chat with you today and basically to be able to share a little bit of your story about how you're introducing Mandarin to your son, and also all of the incredible work you're doing in London as well to be able to help spread that resource and that opportunity for lots of other kids as well. But all of that we'll touch on a little bit later. I would love to know just a little bit about your background in particular because you're a native Mandarin speaker.
Jace Kemel: 00:44 Yes, I am.
Shannon Kelly: 00:45 Did you grow up as a native speaker when you were a child? Can you share a little bit about your childhood and family upbringing?
Jace Kemel: 00:53 Right. So I was born and bred in Singapore and most Singaporeans are bilingual. So you definitely know how to speak English and you can read and write and speak English and you will learn your mother tongue as well. So because I'm Chinese, so I learned how to speak Mandarin and read and write Mandarin. And growing up, I was raised by my grandma and my grandpa and they speak a dialect and my parents who were Chinese educated, they only speak Mandarin. So my family has a very strong foundation in terms of like the language itself because that's pretty much the only mode of communication for everyone. So going through the education system, it helped me learn another language, which is English, and everything in Singapore, you have to communicate in English. And because that's the main language of business.
Jace Kemel: 01:49 When I had my child, which was about 20 months ago, but I see. So I started thinking when I was pregnant. So how do I want my child to, to grow up in terms of a language? Because when my husband and I, (my husband is New Yorker and he speaks English and Russian and myself and Singaporian and I speak English and Mandarin ) It dawned on us that, being here alone as a family unit, without family members around, it's going to be difficult and challenging trying to teach a foreign language to your child first of all you don't have family support. Secondly, all around the kids hear English and you're almost fighting, fight trying to fight the tide because, they are so they are constantly being exposed to the language, just English. So I decided that when I was pregnant that I spoke to a couple of my cousins as well back home because my cousin's children are trilingual.
Jace Kemel: 02:51 Yes. So they speak Mandarin as well as English and, and they are fluent and it's pretty amazing that, that the children know how to switch languages when they see different kinds of people like it. They see that you look like a Malaysian, they know how to speak Malay to you is, If see that you look Chinese, they'll speak Mandarin to you. So I started asking my cousin what are the tips, what did you do? And she's an educator herself. She's a teacher. She's an English teacher actually. And she told me that what they did was they stick to a language - so each parents stick to one language and there has to be very, very disciplined about it. And that's what I did with my son basically. So when he was in my tummy, I constantly speak Mandarin to him and after he was born, I only speak mandarin to, him and I tried to be very disciplined about it because I think as people who are bilingual, especially living in a country where English is a main language, it becomes very easy and rather lazy, to just speak English. Yeah. And, so that's what I do with my son. Everything was Mandarin and at the same time I got him a lot of Chinese books as well. So when I read to him, it's all in Chinese. So for example, the children's toy which has different colors. So what I would do is that I will put like a little sticker off of like a what translation for him and like it is Hóngsè and I'll stick it there. And I was saying that this is, this is Hóngsè and so yeah, little things at home that we do to try to help him know the language.
Jace Kemel: 04:47 And I think our only started seeing a little bit of the fruits of the labour where he started talking, which was, around 14, 15 months. And that's with 'Apple' small words here and there and, and is pretty amazing. Um, but I think of the big biggest challenge, um, being abroad and, and being with my partner who doesn't speak Mandarin. Yeah.
Shannon Kelly: 05:13 So he doesn't speak any Mandarin at all, right?
Jace Kemel: 05:16 No, no he doesn't. So he speaks Russian and English.
Shannon Kelly: 05:20 Does he ever speak Russian to Vincent?
Jace Kemel: 05:23 Yes, he does. but because my husband left his home,, well as where he was born were born, he was born in Latvia, but they moved to New York at age of six. So his level of Russian vocabulary wise stops at the age of 6. Yeah, so, he thinks that he's not, good enough to teach my son Russian...
Shannon Kelly: 05:47 But he's still, he's still at least a couple of years of advanced Russian from your son.
Jace Kemel: 05:52 So he's still got a good couple of years in writing. Yeah, exactly. So he does speak Russian to my son. I wouldn't say he's say really as discipline as I am in terms of Mandarin to him because I think that between the two of us we do that. Let us give him a little bit of introduction for, Russian, for the communication as the heritage, our point of view. But we really want him to master Mandarin. Yeah. So, so it's pretty interesting when the three of us are having a meal together or we are just playing games. I will be speaking to Vincent in mandarin or giving instructions and so on and so forth. And I do my husband catch on what I was trying to say because he has been listening to the language for a long time. Yeah. More often than not, I have to translate a, but the good thing is it actually helped my husband learned the language because I think as adults is really difficult for adults to learn the language and not just because Mandarin is difficult, but to learn another language is difficult. Starting from the baby steps where you teach them very simple was he actually helped my husband learned the language as well. So I think it helps the family as a whole, even though the challenges that you have to do quite a bit of translation initially, but it's worth the effort because, um, eventually my husband understands a lot more about my heritage and my culture. Yeah. And I think that that connects the family.
Shannon Kelly: 07:31 Absolutely. And I lost it. You able to be able to pass by even just introducing Mandarin, to your son, you're to really start to pass on not just a language and a communication tool, but really that pathway into understanding a bit more of his heritage as well, which is so important. Right? Can I ask a little bit, um, you mentioned just a second ago that your goal is to give him a mastery of the mandarin language. Is this something that you want him to kind of be proficient in at an academic level or is it something that he can be conversational in? Like before you decided to go down the path of introducing Mandarin, did you have some specific goals that you really wanted to see achieved or has that evolved over time?
Jace Kemel: 08:18 Um, yes, evolved. I think initially my target was just that I just hope that he can be conversational because my parents only speak Mandarin and to me the language is the bridge for them to communicate for them to understand each other. And I want him to be able to communicate with my parents. Yeah. So initially that was the goal. Uh, as I go along and I started to learn that because of my business, I also started expanding to educating children, not just being conversational, but able to write, able to read and able to go for exams. Basically. I find that that goal itself is not unattainable. And, and for, for my son who I would like you to be able to excel in it academically to go for an exam and basically be a hundred percent proficient just like just like his mom. Yeah. So that's my goal for him.
Shannon Kelly: 09:17 Yeah. That's fantastic. So in terms of when you first started as a fluent speaker of Mandarin, did you have expectations that it would just be an easy process because you're a native speaker or did you, were you, aware that you could have some challenges in terms of the reality of teaching that language as well?
Jace Kemel: 09:39 Initially, the idea was just to speak to him. So I felt that, oh, you just need to basically, you know the language and you just need your mouth and you could speak to him but I realise as I go along, as he starts to grow a little bit older, and like the things that we do in terms of activities, I realized that there's more to that and I started to look for materials, which is a challenge in itself because materials are not readily available and I started to buy a lot from China. I started to buy a lot from home from Singapore and I will either ship it over here to London or I'll get my friends to bring across and, and I started to think that the challenges starts to become more obvious as the kids become older and be able to say a little worse to you. So for example, words that are not used commonly, for example, like a toy that I'm just using a toy as an example. Like say for example, 'spider' and you sell them, use the word Spider in the language. Because how often do you say 'spider'? Yeah. And, and sometimes it actually take me a moment, Huh? What's that word? And it takes yo because I'm bilingual. Yeah, it takes you a moment. Translate that. Yeah, exactly. So that is with the toys for the children. But another challenge that I encounter is,, when I was weaning my son, so I was introducing different kinds of fruits and vegetables and different fruit varieties. So a lot of times being an English it's not easy, everything was in English which is easy.. Because you've tried to teach him another language in a, proper manner I would say not professional in the proper manner. You want to make sure that he knows the different terms and you don't want to just give him a broad category say for example like grains. You don't want to just say grains. You want to say different types of grains. This is rice and this is wheat.... So you, you become very specific and as you go down the tiny details, you start to realize that, you need more maturity, and develop little bit more understanding and you need more tools like unique flashcards. You need books, you need toys that will help you be able to introduce the language.
Shannon Kelly: 12:07 So, are there any tools and resources that you in particular found help for? Like obviously you mentioned some books and, and flashcards. Were there any other resources that you leaned on to create that environment for him?
Jace Kemel: 12:21 Honestly, I think at this stage of my child's development, flashcards and books are the best. Flashcards, especially because some of the flashcards are bilingual. So on one side of the card it says, the word in Chinese, if you flip around, he sees the word in English. So it not only helped my son, he also helps my husband and at the same time because my husband's focus is with teaching English, we can use the same types of game. And I find that that's really helpful. And I think for my son at this age, he find flashcards really interesting as well around you control the good step on it. And I, when he stepping on it, you could tend to say 'yes' stepping on an apple (Píngguǒ), or he has more than one ways of just using flashcards, which I find that he's fun and you could, you could even do games of flashcards, which I find that it's really fun as well for us. For example, you could just, you could play a matching game with them. Like, Oh, I them can you find apple and then you'll go and see all the costs over trying to find an apple. So I think by far the most flexible too. Yup. It was so fun.
Shannon Kelly: 13:43 And yeah, and flashcards are great because they can also introduce vocabulary that you don't necessarily have inside the four walls of your home. So say for example you want to introduce farm animals, you can have flashcard animals then introduce it without actually having a real life. You don't have a cow in your house, but you can actually have that visual representation, which is probably really helpful as well. Exactly. I agree. I agree. Can you tell me what point you decided to actually start introducing mandarin to kids within your community? Like what was the motivation behind starting?Am I pronouncing my Mandarin's not fantastic, but is it then Le Tao Tao Mandarin
Jace Kemel: 14:28 Very Good. Well done.
New Speaker: 14:32 My German helped me somewhere along the lines, I'm sure of it.
New Speaker: 14:37 Well Le Tao Tao started when Vincent, turned so I kind of have have like a journey of a year with him and besides teaching him the language, I think what I do was actually read up quite a bit about children and languages. And how it is important? At what juncture do you actually introduce the language? The short answer is that you should introduce a language as early as you can however, what I have studied is that the most critical age for the children to learn a language is actually from the age of six months to 12 months. so why did that, is that at each group or children actually learn language and are collecting statistics because all languages has different sounds. And I think that's the real challenge for adults to learn a different language because we can't say, oh, have the right enunciation for certain words in a particular language and that in itself is a stumbling block for us. However, for children, they learn languages better. They collect the most from the age of six months to twelve months and when they start to speak. So anytime from now - 14, 15 months upwards, they start to remember the things I did and collect it when they were younger and they're able to repeat it a lot easier after you already teach them when they stopped to listen and when they, when they started able to speak, they're able to say because they remember that they have heard all these words when they were younger. So what I did was in my classes, basically we welcome children. Oh, any age. So at my youngest, when I first started it was at a four and a half months. It was an Indian boy. Both parents are Indian and he started at four and a half months with me. So I believe that because now he's eight months now. So whenever he's in my class, whenever I look into his eyes, like the things that I've been teaching him, I know that he's absorbing and I know that when he started to speak, because that's what I've been telling his mom, when he starts to speak, you will see the fruits of the labor coming. Because now he doesn't speak. It's not quite useful yet. So for my business - I have a, preschool age class, which is anywhere under the age of three or under the age of two, they come for my baby and toddler class where, learning of the language is a lot through play and experience. So for example, I'm actually teaching the children about farm animals. So I actually building real fun for them and a they will have craft work together with the animals itself. So for example, when I'm teaching about pigs, they get to have a sponge to put mud on the pig. So, I will have these kinds of activities with them and they'll start to learn the language in a very active manner man. And it's they start to to see the figurine, they're able to match it up. And at the same time, on the same day, I have an older group, which is well in London, they call it afterschool club. So for children who are going to school. So that was open to learn about farm animals, but they're gonna learn it very differently because they have started to learn how to write numbers. , they will have the whole farm experience, they will feed the animals and all that, but they will start to say, I will give them a flashcard, they say to the Chinese character 'Two'. They are suppose to draw the number of X that matches up with the numbers, for example, so that they will learn in a more fun way for them because it's still craft. They still love drawing this, they still love being involved, but they, they are exposed to writing, so they're more hands on in that sense. So pretty much a, the broad base, a quick outline of what I do with the children from, from the age of one month all the way to 10 years old.
Shannon Kelly: 18:54 Yeah, I love that. And I loved it. You, you actually really strategic about how you're engaging kids at varying age levels as well so that they're still very hands on. They're still doing a lot of play based activities, particularly with your preschool age. But I think that in and of itself is pretty encouraging for a lot of parents who have young kids and they've thought about the idea of maybe 'I could start, maybe I could introduce a child, my child, the language, but I don't know how to start it.' For example. I love that you were saying before, like you, you have families who come into your mandarin classes and can you tell me a little about, about whether they are native speakers or whether they come from a Chinese background at all. Can you talk a little bit about generally the people who are coming in and introducing Mandarin?
Jace Kemel: 19:47 80% of my students are non native speakers, so both parents don't speak any mandarin at all, but they want their children to learn Mandarin. So the rest of the 20%, they are not 100% Chinese either. So they have mixed heritage. So there is Spanish or French or Italian with native maybe with a Chinese mom, but pretty much this is the profile of my students and how I encourage both sets of parents regardless of native or non native is that to constantly practice the language with the children. So for all my students after every class, I'll give them like a little memory card. They're really small, there is like a postcard size. Basically I provide them a little photo album basically. So after every class you'll have your card, you'll swap it in. And what I encourage the parents to do is that go through them just five minutes a day and you will help you also trying to, I'm trying to engage the parents as such that they know what the children are learning with me. And so the parents actually told me that those cards are really useful. So one of my lessons was about parks and the parents actually brought the cards with them to the park and they will go, oh, everything. Like, how do you say tree in mandarin and how say Squirrel in Mandarin, you're counting trees in Chinese. So I find that, that that those cards help the parents to be more engaged and it's not just the language itself, I'll be honest, because I think the parents, what they are, they're very interested is that they want to be involved in the children's lives and in particular in their education or life as well. So I think that, um, it's a very fun activity for the family and everyone gets to be involved in it. And it's almost like a challenge sometimes because I get that attendance you have to say good morning first your parents before they say it to you in Mandarins so it really becomes a competition. So how do you encourage parents to make it for older children. I highly encourage them to make the competition. Oh, let's see who can say this plus in Mandarin or in whichever language you're trying to teach the children. For younger ones too. Engage them slowly through games that in play. And then you tell them, 'what's this about what's that about?' So, yeah,
Shannon Kelly: 22:13 I love that. Can you tell me why? Why is it you think that you're seeing much more of an uptake in a lot of non native speakers wanting to teach their kids mandarin? What is it about the mandarin language? Cause it's not a particularly easy language. I mean, as an adult obviously I look at it and go whoa, like lots of hard characters, lots of things to try and memorize - Tonally it's very, very different from say learning of French or in Italian for example. What is it, do you think about mandarin that's really drawing people to want to introduce it to their kids?
Speaker 2: 22:48 Hmm. I think for like primarily there are like three reasons. One of the first reason is that, I think all parents, everyone in the world acknowledges that like, China is up and coming and everyone wants to learn the magic language to be able to understand, to be able to speak. So this one and other reason I said I think the parents come across, as being open because I think exposure is really important because if you have a exposed kid to another language, you never know if they're interested. So they really want to expose their children to it and if they love it, because that's what I tell all the parents who bring their children to me for the first class. I said, let your child tell you if they like it and they want to continue because there's no obligation on my end, told them, I'm almost certain that they will tell you that they love it, but I want you to hear from them what they have to say about class and what they are learning. So it's the exposure part is about the part that Chinese is important. And I think the part that, the reason these, because a lot of, I want you to say mandarin is something completely from different from like English, French, Spanish, German, which use alphabets to write. So I think they want to allow that. They want to give the opportunity to their children. To learn something different, which they feel that it's easier for them to pick up and whether or not they take it further in your life is really up to the children, but at least you know, they're given the opportunity to try it out.
Shannon Kelly: 24:26 Yeah. And I think that's, it's so smart on their part because just in particular, because of the way, like you mentioned earlier, kids have this unique ability to be able to learn to speak a language like a native speaker, really, really easily and feel that has a lot to do - We've talked about a little bit about, um, with their ability to be able to hear correct pronunciation really easily. Whereas as adults we often lose that ability cause we get a little bit set in stone that English is what we hear or French is what we've heard. And we, we only really hear that. Whereas like if our kids have the opportunity to be able to learn Mandarin really, really easily from a young age, then it really does set them up to learn other languages again with ease. But I, I just love the concept of starting, starting with probably one of what we perceive is one of the hardest languages. It only gets easier from there, right? Yeah, I agree. Well, the one of the French girls told me because she's proficient in English and French and she told her mom, "mommy this language is really not that easy compared to French and English but I really like it." That's what she said to her. Well, yeah, but you're right. You're absolutely right. And it's very encouraging to see young children being so interested because a large part of it is my heritage because I think it was Chinese characters they're almost like a drawing because I always explained to them what that correct because I'd break it down for them. Why is it this way? It's almost like telling a story to them and I love that they are so engaged and so interested. Really hungry for the language.
Shannon Kelly: 26:06 Yeah, I think so too. That's beautiful that you actually giving them the chance to be able to engage with it. So I think what you're doing is fantastic, pretty special and yeah, I mean it's, it's, I would encourage anybody, any of our members, any of that community, if you're listening and you are in London, definitely go and check it out because I think if you can give your kids the opportunity to get that headstart within Mandarin language and it's, I think it's an exceptional headstart for your kids. So yes, highly check it out. I wish I was in London, so I could come by to make some, to come say come say hi and visit.. Jace is there, like if there's one piece of information or a piece of advice that you could actually pass on to any parents who were contemplating teaching Mandarin but more maybe a little hesitant to, would there be one piece of advice that you would give to them that could help maybe take that first step? I've just thrown you in the deep end?
Jace Kemel: 27:12 Yeah, very much so. I think this is something that I um, that I actually told one of my friends who wants to start teaching her child Mandarin. I say that, why don't you pick a particular time of the day? For example, morning if you are a morning person. So maybe just use half an hour in the morning, try to introduce Mandarin to your child using everyday things or equipments around you. So for example, in the morning you're making breakfast for your child and involves bread tea, coffee. So in that half an hour introduce small things and maybe just five, maybe just three things in Mandarin. Just say that 'Bread', how'd you say bread in Mandarin, how do you say 'Tea' in Mandarin. How do you say 'Eat' in Mandarin for example? And that's it. And you, so you could start doing it every morning and introduced just one or two things in Mandarin. Be Consistent. Well, if you want to do it just every morning or every evening before going to bed before you tell a bedtime story to your child and just 10, 15 minutes with them. And from there, that's how I feel that you can slowly start and he's not so intimidating from both ends. Yeah. And, and I find that giving yourself a very small window to just try to introduce the language give yourself - not as stressful as trying to like think about introducing language is almost like there's like a mountain of things to do, right. If you just choose 10, 15 minutes in a day and, and just introduce small things every day that we saw, easy for you to just grab it, there'll be, there'll be a lot easier for both to understand for him, for your children, for yourself to just start teaching.
Shannon Kelly: 29:05 Absolutely. And just reduces overwhelm in general from both parties. Right.
Jace Kemel: 29:10 Exactly. Yeah. Well I love that. Um, there's before, before we go, I would love it if you could tell me where people can find out more information. I know you've got an incredible blog. We share a lot of the resources and what you actually doing in your classes. So for our members who may be not, in London who can't get to a class. Maybe they can get some inspiration. Where can people find you today? They can find me on my website so my website. Should, I just tell you the website now.
Shannon Kelly: 29:41 She can tell me and then I can pop it in the show notes as well just so they can go and click on the link.
Jace Kemel: 29:47 It's LeTaoTaoMandarin.com - This is my main website where I put up on updates about my classes, what I do with them, some of my resources, like the things I shared with parents. Like there's really encouraging about, about being bilingual. And so that's my main, website at the same time you can also find me on Facebook and Instagram. Yes. So as long as you, put in LeTaotao on both Instagram and Facebook, they should be able to find me. I will provide the link as well.
Shannon Kelly: 30:27 Yeah. Shannon, we will pop it in the link in the notes as well so that everyone can get some tools to get started.
Jace Kemel: 30:35 Oh great, thank you.
Shannon Kelly: 30:37 Well, my hope is that today that this, um, this conversation would be a real encouragement to anyone who's listening, anyone who's even thought about the idea, and if even if you haven't thought about Mandarin, like this actually can apply to other languages as well. So make sure you're jumping in, go and find out more about Mandarin, but also jumped into our website as well because we've got a tonne of information about how you can get started. So you can find that over at the culture, kid.com. But Jason, thank you so much for being with me today. I look forward to chatting with you, really saying.
Jace Kemel: 31:09 Sure. Thank you.
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