Little ones love getting to grips with the world’s most commonly spoken language, so Becky Pugh looks at options for learning
Not so long ago, all a toddler wanted on a Saturday morning was a mountain of Coco Pops and Peppa Pig. These days, however, any self-respecting two-year-old demands more from her weekends. She wants to learn while she plays. She wants to interact with other cultures. She wants to immerse herself in the language of the future.
In short, she wants a place at one of the Mandarin playgroups popping up around London. There, with her finger firmly on the pulse, she will spend an hour singing, dancing and rhyming her way to global success. When she graduates from playgroup, she’ll hone her skills in a pre-school class before really nailing the most commonly spoken language in the world when she gets to big school.
For there is no doubt Mandarin is having a moment – and you are never too young to start learning. We know children pick up languages as easily as parents pick up dirty socks. But it seems that Mandarin is particularly appealing to little people. Because it is tonal, it lends itself well to songs, rhymes and repetition. Plus, many of its sounds are short, single-syllable ones that children remember without much trouble.
At Knightsbridge School, as soon as they start Reception, each child learns French and another language of their choice, with the most popular being Spanish and – you guessed it – Mandarin.
“Our children seem to love learning Mandarin, especially when they are little. As they get older and the work becomes more complex, they can find it harder,” says teacher Henrietta Taylor. “The parents who choose it usually do so because they’ve lived in the Far East before or because they simply want their children to get ahead.”
Nick Baker, headmaster of Wetherby Preparatory School and the new Wetherby Senior School, tells me: “There are many benefits to teaching languages from an academic and social perspective, and, of course, they are easier to absorb at a young age. We make Mandarin compulsory in Year 5 for half-an-hour a week, and there is the option after that to continue studying it for Common Entrance.”
One of the key people feeding this burgeoning appetite for Mandarin is Marcus Keoch, founder and managing director of Dragons in Europe, which provides schools with specialist Mandarin teachers and parents with private tutors.
“We’ve seen many more prep schools putting Mandarin on their curriculums in the last three years and a huge growth in parents seeking private tutors because Mandarin is not on their children’s school curriculums.
“Parents understand that their children are likely to be employed by Chinese companies in the future and that it is worth demystifying the language – and children love learning it.”
Mandarin mania is not confined to playgroups, nurseries and schools, either. Agencies across the capital have noted an increase in the number of people hiring Mandarin-speaking nannies to ensure their children are exposed to the language.
Chiahua Chang of mandarinaupair.com, says: “More people are looking for Mandarin-speaking nannies. Some of them say because schools are offering Mandarin, they want to hire a Mandarin-speaking nanny so the kids can immerse themselves at home.
“Other families have said it is because they have been living in a Chinese-speaking area, such as Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore or Taiwan. Their children have learned to speak and understand Mandarin, and they want them to continue to use those skills. A few parents come to us simply because they think Mandarin is a useful language to learn.”
But if playgroups are not for you, Mandarin lessons are not on offer at your child’s school and a Mandarin-speaking nanny is a step too far, don’t despair. Apps such as Kids Learn Mandarin and Monki Home can provide an excellent basis. There is the brilliant website, primaryschoolchinese.com, as well as The Lingo Show, a perky television programme that introduces kids to the magic of Mandarin (among other languages).
My boys – aged five and two – are hooked. In just a few sittings, an adorable Chinese bug called Wei has taught them the words for hello (ni hao); one (yi), two (er), three (san); and goodbye (zai jian). They are ear-achingly proud of what they have learned and seem hungry for more.
So there is no reason why your little monkeys shouldn’t have a shot at world domination, too – from the comfort of your sofa if needs be.