A mother and her 5-year old child are strolling in front of the vegetable stand in a grocery store. The child sees a purple vegetable, points at it and asks his mother, "What's that?"
We may very well have three mothers, each giving a different response:
The first mother ignores the child's question because she is on her cell phone.
The second mother says, "Oh, eggplants. But we don't eat them."
The third mother says, "Ah, these are eggplants. Eggplants are one of the few purple vegetables. They are nutritious. We haven't had them before, but let's buy one and try it. It's only $1.99 per pound. Why don't you choose one and weigh it?
The child picks up one eggplant. The mother says "That's gigantic!" Then, the mother-son pair further gets into a conversation about possible recipes and ingredients.
This example (not a word-by-word quote) was given by Phyllis Hunters, the former Director of Reading for Houston's Public Schools, to illustrate how some children are immersed in a rich language environment while others are not.
By the time children are 3-years old, those in a rich language environment have heard 30 million more words than those in impoverished environment, as Betty Hart and Todd Risley showed in their monumental in-depth longitudinal study. Those in enriched language environment move onto a smoother track of learning to read and write, and enjoy higher levels of school success.
This is about speech input quantity. Speech input quality also matters. Researchers such as Roberta Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Paskek have found that caretakers who use the "Contingency Principal" while talking to the children help said children develop strong language skills. Contingency is when caretakers talk about what is around, what the child is interested in, and there is back-and-forth in the talking. The contents of the talks are contingent on the environment, and what one party says in response to what the other party says.
These findings all come from studies of children learning English as their main language. The same learning principles apply to the learning of any language, including children learning Chinese as their home language or as a second language.
The prime challenge faced by families with children learning Chinese in the U.S. (or any other country where the dominant language is not Chinese) is the limited Chinese language exposure.
To have seen caretakers speaking Mandarin to children of various ages. I have also observed some caretakers who, although speaking Chinese to these children, speak too little or in too limited ways.
So, what can these caretakers do to enrich the children's Chinese language input?
There are no better ways to offer ideas than picking up a specific case to dissect—
On a recent morning, I finally got a chance to take a walk in Central Park for the first time this Spring. I walked through the park from 88th Street all the way to 57th Street. I paused along the way to observe and to take notes. I imagined myself walking through the park with a child and what the child and I would both be interested in talking about... in Chinese. I also imagined that if I didn't know Chinese, what I would encourage my child to say in Chinese.
Below is a list of possible conversation starters. Each sentence can lead to more elaborate verbal interactions.
Children Play Sports
I passed by groups of children playing all kinds of games or sport games. I would say to my child:
"看, 他们在玩游戏!" (kàn, tāmen zài wán yóuxì.)
"Look, they are playing a game."
"看, 他们在玩球。" (kàn, tāmen zài wán qiú.)
"Look, they are playing a ball game."
Then, I would go further by specifying what kinds of game(s) they are playing.
"他们在玩 Freeze 游戏。" (tāmen zài wán Freeze yóuxì.)
"They are playing the Freeze game."
"他们在踢足球。" (tāmen zài tī zúqiú.)
"They are playing soccer."
"他们在打网球。" (tāmen zài dǎ wǎngqiú.)
"They are playing tennis."
Then, I would describe some specifics of the games. When I heard the instructor saying "Ready?" to the players, I would repeat it in Chinese —
"老师说, '准备好了吗?'" (lǎoshī shuō, zhǔnbèi hǎo le ma?)
"The teacher said, 'Are you ready?'"
When I heard a child say, "One more time!" I would repeat that in Chinese —
"他说, '再来一次!'" (tā shuō, zàilái yīcì!)
"He said, “One more time!'"
I would comment on the move of a player —
“好球!” (hǎo qiú!)
Literally, "Good ball!" It means a good move.
If I am not able to speak Chinese, I would simply get my child to describe and translate these into Chinese, by asking —
“他们在干什么?” (tāmen zài gàn shénme?)
"What are they doing?"
“他说了什么?” (tā shuōle shénme?)
"What did he say?"
Birds, Trees, Flowers and Grass
I sat on a bench, watching the birds flying here and there, smelling the air filled with fresh cut grass. I would say to a child —
看, 小鸟飞到树上了!” (kàn, xiǎo niǎo fēi dào shù shàngle?)
"Look, the birds flew onto the tree!"
“看, 那两只小鸟站在树上叫!” (kàn, nà liǎng zhī xiǎo niǎo zhàn zài shù shàng jiào!)
"Look, two birds are chirping on the tree!"
“青草味真好闻。你闻到了吗?” (qīngcǎo wèi zhēn hǎo wén. Nǐ wén dàole ma?)
"The grass smells so good. Do you smell it?"
"看, 阳光照在树上, 真美!" (kàn, yángguāng zhào zài shù shàng, zhēnměi!)
"Look, the sun shines on the trees. So beautiful!"
Dogs, after children, are the second major occupants in the park. Children are naturally curious about dogs, and I once spent a tremendous amount of time with my toddler daughter watching and talking about dogs in the parks.
"这么多人在遛狗!" (zhème duō rén zài liú gǒu!)
"So many people are walking dogs!"
"看, 小狗一边走一边在地上闻。闻什么啊？" (kàn, xiǎo gǒu yībiān zǒu yībiān zài dìshàng wén. Wén shénme a?)
"Look, the dog is walking and smelling on the ground. What is she smelling?"
"这只小狗毛好长啊, 都看不见它的眼睛了!" (zhè zhǐ xiǎo gǒu máo hǎo zhǎng a, dōu kàn bùjiàn tā de yǎnjīngle!)
"This dog’s hair is so long. It’s hard even to see her eyes."
"看, 这两只狗腿真短啊! 走得倒是真快!" (kàn, zhè liǎng zhī gǒu tuǐ zhēn duǎn a! Zǒu dé dǎoshì zhēn kuài!)
"These two dogs have such short legs. But they do walk fast!"
Who can resist taking photos at Central Park? I watched a family taking a family "selfie" in front of a pond. I would point this out to a child —
"看, 他们一家人在自拍!" (kàn, tāmen yījiā rén zài zìpāi!)
"Look, this family is taking a selfie!"
I saw a woman standing in front of some flowers, and her friend was taking a picture for her. I would say —
"看, 她站在花前。她的朋友在给她拍照。" (kàn, tā zhàn zài huā qián. tā de péngyǒu zài gěi tā pāizhào.)
"Look, she stands in front of the flowers. Her friend is taking a picture of her."
Then the friend asked the woman to check what she had taken. I would say —
"她说, 看看拍得怎么样?" (tā shuō, kàn kàn pāi dé zěnme yàng?)
"She said, take a look and see how it is."
There were all kinds of bicycle riders, some fast, some slow, some riding up a slope and some down a slope, some were quiet, and some were shouting, "To your right!"
"他们在下坡, 看着好轻松!" (tāmen zàixià pō, kànzhe hǎo qīngsōng!)
"They’re going down the slope. It seems so easy!"
"他们在上坡, 看着好累!" (tāmen zài shàng pō, kànzhe hǎo lèi!)
"They’re going up the slope. It seems to be so tiring!"
"看, 他们不骑车了, 躺在草地上休息。" (kàn, tāmen bù qí chēle, tǎng zài cǎodì shàng xiūxí.)
"Look, they stopped riding the bikes. They’re lying on the grass resting."
"她让他把车锁上。" (tā ràng tā bǎ chē suǒ shàng.)
"She asked him to lock up the bike."
People Interacting with Each Other
I saw a mom tying shoes laces for her child, another mother asking her child to put on her hat, and a dad asking his child to turn around in the stroller. In these situations, I would say —
"看, 妈妈在给孩子系鞋带。" (kàn, māmā zài gěi hái zǐ xì xié dài.)
"Look, the mom is tying up the child’s shoe."
"妈妈让宝宝戴上帽子。" (māmā ràng bǎobǎo dài shàng màozi.)
"Look, the mom is putting on the baby’s hat."
"爸爸让宝宝转过身去。" (bàba ràng bǎobǎo zhuǎnguò shēn qù.)
"Dad asked the baby to turn around."
I saw a class on their field trip. The teachers distributing lunches to students sitting on benches in front of the Central Park Zoo —
"看, 老师在给学生发午餐。" (kàn, lǎoshī zài gěi xuéshēng fā wǔcān.)
"Look, the teachers are distributing lunch to the students."
I saw people sitting on the grass chatting —
"看, 他们坐在草地上聊天。" (kàn, tāmen zuò zài cǎodì shàng liáotiān.)
"Look, they are sitting on the grass chatting."
Commenting on Various Scenes
At the park, anywhere you look something is happening. I saw a long line outside the lady's restroom. I would comment —
"女厕所排队的人这么多。" (nǚ cèsuǒ páiduì de rén zhème duō.)
"So many people are lining up for the lady’s room."
I saw a police car meandering on the path. I would ask —
"怎么有警车?" (zěnme yǒu jǐngchē?)
"How come there are police cars."
I heard people speaking Japanese. I would tell my child —
"他们说的话, 我一点也听不懂。不过很好听。" (tāmen shuō dehuà, wǒ yīdiǎn yě tīng bù dǒng. bùguò hěn hǎotīng.)
"I can’t understand anything they are saying. But what they say sounds so nice."
Practicing One Sentence Structure Only
Looking around, I even came up with the idea of practicing just one sentence structure. For example, the structure:
“someone 一边 do A thing 一边 do B thing”
(Someone is doing A while doing B)
"他一边骑车一边看手机。" (tā yībiān qí chē yībiān kàn shǒujī.)
"He’s riding the bike and looking at his cell phone."
"小狗一边走一边闻。" (xiǎo gǒu yībiān zǒu yībiān wén.)
"The dog is walking and smelling."
"她一边跑一边听音乐。" (tā yībiān pǎo yībiān tīng yīnyuè.)
"She is running and listening to music."
Mind on the Moment
Going back to the eggplant example. In all scenarios, the three mothers all end up spending the same amount of time with their child at the grocery store. However, in each scenario the child soaked in drastically different amount of language.
Unfortunately, at the park, most caretakers I saw were talking on their phones instead of talking to the children in their presence. There was no doubt that many precious moments of learning and interacting with the world were lost.
In all the years my daughter was growing up, I never carried a phone when I was with her. To engage our nanny, I asked her to write down the most interesting, or new types of sentences my daughter said while I was away, and share them with me at the end of the day. By the time my daughter was three, she spoke both Mandarin and English fluently.
You Can Do Better
In terms of verbal interaction skills with young children, I consider myself mediocre. I have been impressed again and again by many caretakers who are verbally creative and engaging with young children in their care. What has helped me is an intrinsic enjoyment in seeing what children are interested in and turning those moments verbal. Once you know this is important, I'm sure you can do it, and can do it better than I did.
Each sentence you say is a gift to your child. Language is one of the most amazing things you can share with a child.