“MOMMY WILL LEARN MANDARIN WITH YOU!”

Jill Neubronner, news anchor at Channel 5’s News 5 Tonight, bowls me over with her commitment and determination to get her two girls to learn Mandarin. Aged 6 and 4, the girls were born in Hong Kong, and in 2012, Jill and her British husband moved back to Singapore. I met Jill recently, and the former CNN presenter shared that she was taking up Mandarin herself to “walk the talk”.  What else will Jill, 44, do to give her girls the best chance at Mandarin? Read my interview with her for ideas and inspiration!

Crazy About Chinese:

Do you recall when you first started getting worried about the girls’ learning of Chinese? What happened

Jill:

Right from the start, my husband and I agreed Mandarin was a language we wanted our children to acquire. Their language development was coming along well in Hong Kong because of the environment they were in. Regular play groups in Mandarin. The usual toddler activities like music, art and gym but all conducted in Mandarin. Chinese speaking role models and friends, both native and non-native speakers and school teachers who ensured every child regardless of their race was brought up to the Mandarin standard of their level, no exceptions for non-native speakers. The children saw their Danish friends learning, loving and speaking as much as their Chinese friends. This to me is key.

There was a strong support network of friends who modeled to me and my children how a non-native Chinese could learn and love Mandarin and speak it fluently. There was a superb network of like-minded mums, native and non-native speakers who were committed to their children learning the language and organized events around this such as embarking on adult Mandarin classes together, and organizing summer camps in Taiwan for the kids.

Crazy About Chinese:

What happened after you moved back to Singapore?

Jill:

The foundations in Mandarin we had built quickly eroded when we moved back to Singapore when the children were 3 and 1. I have spent a great deal of time thinking about why that was.

For one, I noticed the attitude of Mandarin teachers in Singapore were different. Mandarin teachers in school would assume my children were expats and speak to them in English. They seemed unwilling to put in the same effort to teaching my children as they would a native speaker or local. This sent a message that my children were somewhat different and treated so.

There was a lack of role modelling as many Chinese in Singapore seemed to dislike speaking Chinese. So how could I inspire and convince my children to learn Chinese when they were not even Chinese?

I found it hard to find a network of like-minded parents who were also struggling with the language etc.

It was very difficult to find activities that interested my children conducted in Mandarin.

Tutors were very set in their ways to a classroom, drilling style teaching rather than taking lessons out of the classroom in creative ways such as visits to the library, market or post office.

Crazy About Chinese:

Why is the learning of the language so important to you?

Jill:

My children are born in Asia with British, Singapore citizenship and Hong Kong PR. It seems natural to equip them with Mandarin given the region to which they were born into. Also, I believe speaking an Asian language like Chinese bonds them to Asia in a very intimate way. Knowing the language is knowing the culture and people, and I would like them to be invested in Asia in a meaningful way. I would also like them to have a point of distinction should they choose to work or live in Europe.

I would also like them to be able to contribute in a meaningful way to society when they are older, whether through a job or volunteering etc. More importantly, speaking multiple languages is a family legacy. My grandfather, who worked in colonial Singapore customs could speak English, Malay, Tamil and multiple Chinese dialects. When he retired, he used this knowledge of Hokkien to translate the bible and sermons to drug addicts in prison. I saw how his knowledge endeared him to many people, who respected and appreciated the effort he took to know them. It was admirable and perhaps a worthy legacy to pass on to the children.

Also I would like them to be able to get a fair price and not get cheated when haggling at wet markets.

Jill

Crazy About Chinese:

You have decided to take up the language yourself. Why? Has it worked?
Jill:

I strongly believe in walking the talk. How can I ask my kids to embark on something so challenging if I’m not willing to do it myself?

I want them to see me struggle but not give up. I want to model to them to be unafraid of making mistakes as I use the language.

Crazy About Chinese:

How interested (or not) are your kids in Chinese? Please give one or two specific examples.
Jill:

They sing spontaneously in Chinese. The older one will respond when spoken to in Mandarin. When encountering a mainland Chinese friend, they will attempt to converse in Mandarin. They don’t put up massive resistance when they have to attend Chinese classes. However, my younger child has recently developed a terrible phobia to the language and cries when she goes to her Chinese Immersion School. She does not like the language, the teachers and how it is taught to her. So it is back to the drawing board to rebuild her confidence and interest that matches her personality.

Crazy About Chinese:

What have you done so far to encourage them?
Jill:

I have switched them from a kindergarten I love, to one I don’t care for so much just so they can get exposure to a Mandarin Immersion Programme.

I involve them in activities that promote the love of language, which I found are usually limited to speech and drama.

I enrich them with tuition several times a week but ensure that there is a fun element like taking the lessons outdoors. For example, taking the children to the post office or market and using the language in simple interactions with people. This has been difficult as tutors are unwilling to veer from the classroom style teaching.

I’m seeking a Mandarin speaking helper.

I’m toying not so seriously in enrolling them in Chinese International School.

We are toying not so seriously also with moving back to Hong Kong.

I’m seeking a network of mainland Chinese mums, or expat mum’s who are committed to the local education system.

Crazy About Chinese:

Why not just give up and nature take its own course?
Jill:

Everything that is worth doing is worth doing well and is usually never easy. Whether it is languages or music etc. If I lived in China or Hong Kong, I would be happy to let nature take its course as I know the environment will guide them to love and learn the language. However, here in Singapore, this has to be somewhat engineered. I have to intervene to a certain extent to facilitate choices they may wish to make in the future like working or schooling in North Asia.

 

1 Comment
  1. I am sympathetic to Jill’s situation. Singapore like America, do not provide the environment for Chinese learners unless you are looking for ways to intervene. I am a Singaporean loving in North America. I also am a Chinese teacher in private schools. I just can’t inspire my kids to converse in Chinese at home as my husband is American abd English is our primary language at home. Many Chinese friends have the same problem despite both parents and grandparents are Chinese. There are no Chinese language in our public schools, learning Chinese became parents’ responsibility. Chinese language schools are only once a week on Sundays which runs September to May. Our environment is just not conducive for Chinese lrarners. I am letting nature takes it’s own course by speaking to my kids in Chinese but they are not in Chinese school.

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