Why waste that trip to the hawker centre when you can get more than a plate of char kway teow? Here are some tips on how to practice Mandarin with the little one, while bonding over a meal at the hawker centre, Singapore style.

I am a big fan of learning Mandarin in a natural environment, and what can be more natural (or unnatural, depending on how much of a language purist you are) than our hawker centres?

I have been trying to “train” my two elder kids (10 & 8) to buy their own food at the hawker centre. Firstly, it is to give them some independence. Secondly, I want them to use Mandarin to an end, in this case, purchase food or drinks that they desire. This is important so that they experience for themselves the usefulness of learning the language.

So Jaymee, 5, surprised me this morning by announcing that she was going to buy her own soya bean milk, thank you very much. I had not thought that she had the gumption, but hey, kids are full of surprises, aren’t they?

She took her one dollar coin (which she said was 100 cents), stood in line, and very calmly told the uncle “我要豆浆”.

I would have wept if I wasn’t busy with No.2…. I was so proud of her.

So here’s sharing what I have learnt:

  1. Learning by doing is effective

Learning by doing is incredibly rewarding for the child. Experiential learning is more fun, and I’d bet she will remember this more than if I had delivered the cup to her. Her first reward was grasping the one dollar coin in her little fist – she felt so grown up. Second reward: The cup of soya bean milk she bought for herself. Talk your child through the steps in simple language e.g “我们先排队”. You can also try this at fast food restaurants.

  1. Modeling is important

It really helps if you have older children whom the little one can model after. Because Gor Gor and Jie Jie have been buying their own food, Jaymee simply cannot lose out. Also, she aspires to be like her older siblings. If there are no siblings, then cousins or friends’ older children will do the job. Kids like other kids.

  1. Use the signages to reinforce

Oh you know the sign at the top of the stall? These sometimes show Chinese characters. Useful to point to the sign and say, “宝贝自己买豆浆。好厉害啊!” Jaymee’s soya bean milk cup had the words 豆浆 on it, so I also highlighted it to her casually. For the bigger kids in particular, this is useful for word recognition.

  1. Avoid peak periods

When they are not too busy, hawkers are usually tolerant, even kind, towards the kiddos. The chicken rice aunty offered to carry my son’s tray (because she gave him hot soup), but thankfully he declined. So Saturday and Sunday mornings, when the hawker centres are usually packed, are probably not a good idea. Go right before the lunch crowd, or after.

  1. Plan sufficient time

Give yourself enough time so you will not get all stressed out, because then you may just end up being frustrated and want the kid to hurry up, or take over the task yourself. You do not want him/her to associate this learning experience with negativity.

So the next time you’re at the hawker centre, nourish their bodies and their minds!



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