Mandarin: Our foreign mother-tongue

It’s been well documented that Mandarin Chinese is the hardest language in the world to learn for native English speakers. Chinese is a “logographic” language, meaning that character words are comprised of symbols. There is no alphabet, no way of phonetically “sounding out” a word. There are patterns, but by and large, each character must be memorized, “hen” is no easier to read than “hippopotamus”. It’s also a tonal language, meaning that the same sound, eg. “ma” can have multiple meanings depending on tone and context.

As Miss Chu is ethnically Chinese, it is automatically assumed that Mandarin is her “mother tongue”, despite the fact that no one on her mother’s side of the family can speak it! For school purposes, Mandarin will be one of her core, examinable subjects. This is going to be a challenge.


The Ministry of Education actually organizes annual public symposiums about the teaching and learning of mother tongue, so I went along to find out about the new primary curriculum.

As a typical BBC (British-born-Chinese), I, too, was sent for Mandarin classes as a child – firstly in the UK at a Saturday chinese school, and then in Singapore I shared a private tutor with a friend for joint lessons. My parents speak various Chinese dialects but not Mandarin, so I never heard it at home. And after years of blood, sweat, and tears, I could barely hold a basic conversation or read / write anything remotely useful. Yep, I’m a bit of a banana (yellow on the outside, white on the inside).


My dear mother actually kept my old Chinese exercise books. Even flicking through now brings me right back…

Following on from this disastrous experience (which is shared by many overseas Chinese kids around the world!) I was faced with a similar dilemma when Miss Chu was little. How important was it, for us, that she had a good grasp of Chinese? Daddy Chu is fluent in Mandarin, but speaks Cantonese at home, so even for him, it feels awkward to speak Mandarin with the kids.

I know that all studies indicate that it is best to expose children to a second language from birth. That there is a window of opportunity where they might more easily have a chance of being properly bilingual. But growing up in Edinburgh, with a mother whose grasp of Mandarin is likely worse than that of a 3 year old – the chances were slim. I bought Chinese toddler books and DVDs, learned simple songs, tried to pepper our conversation with any Mandarin phrases that I knew. Miss Chu was not averse, but as she became verbal it was inevitable that she was very dominantly English speaking.

After considering a move back to Singapore, the impetus to take the learning of Mandarin seriously became stronger. But having been so badly turned off learning Chinese as a child, I proceeded with extreme caution. I avoided the typical Saturday Chinese school of my childhood and we asked one of Miss Chu’s ex-nursery staff from China to come round weekly to “play” with her in Mandarin. It certainly helped, but 45 minutes a week is not enough to secure language learning.

I ramped up my own efforts to learn alongside her and trawled the Internet for help – YouTube videos, podcasts, apps, anything. There are a lot more great resources available now than when I was young! I made up silly songs and little word games. I stuck up post-its with Chinese words around the house. It’s been a slow, arduous journey so far, but I’ve clung on to Tesco’s tagline as my motto: “every little helps”.


Miss Chu using Skritter to practice some writing!

Now that we’re here in Singapore, the girls are doing mornings in a “bilingual immersion” kindergarten, meaning that there are English and Mandarin teachers in all classrooms all the time. Miss Chu has found it quite difficult to join in with the Chinese bits so far, but I’m just happy that she is doing her best. We’ve also found a Chinese tutor to come round a couple of hours a week just to try and get her to a reasonable level before starting Primary One.


Slightly scary hordes of parents at the Mother Tongue symposium.

I know, it sounds like I’m already being sucked into the Singapore Association of Tiger Mums but really, I am pro-play / anti-tuition at heart. But under these circumstances, it feels like we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place and I’m struggling with a couple of things.

Firstly, the opportunity cost of learning Mandarin to the expected level is very high. Whilst I’m not one to let my kids shy away from a challenge, even The Economist agrees that the time / money / effort required for a native English speaker to learn Mandarin may not be worth it. In Singapore, where you can easily get by in English, parents spend millions on extra help to get their kids through Chinese exams. Many have said their children spend more time working on Chinese than all the other subjects combined. What if I allowed the kids to re-divert those resources towards learning something else –  would they develop a serious talent for something they really enjoyed instead of just emerging with a mediocre grasp of Mandarin? Or perhaps I would make more of a difference in the world just donating that money to a greater need.

Secondly, to be honest we are only pursuing it with such effort because it is a mandatory subject at school which carries a significant weighting when it comes down to exams. Learning anything for the sake of passing exams just riles me up. It is totally against my views on encouraging, as far as possible, a self-directed approach to learning. So here I am, outwardly doing my best to encourage the girls to speak and learn, and inwardly cross at government policies which drive all children to be effectively bilingual for (primarily) economic reasons.


From a recent local exhibit about Singapore’s Educational history – the Bilingualism Policy, one of LKY’s legacies.

My wish would be that the girls could learn for self-interest and enjoyment at their own pace with less pressure. Learning Mandarin here is a great opportunity, and I do want them to inherit this part of their cultural identity. I really don’t want Miss Chu to dislike Chinese as much as I did when I was young but the pace at which learning is expected here makes this difficult to achieve.

So we’re just making the best of it for now, and for anyone else heading down this same journey, I’ll be posting up any useful tips / resources for Mandarin learning for kids which I come across under “Chinese for Bananas”. Would also appreciate any good advice from you readers out there!




  1. Sounds like so much to take in! It is so interesting to read your blog. Thanks for sharing ?

  2. Thanks! Trying to be positive about the opportunities and praying for wisdom to take a balanced approach to it all!

  3. I can relate to what you have told us in your blog. When your cousins were young we ,as parents, did the same thing . We sent our girls to chinese school not knowing how hard it was for them . They dislike going to the classes so much that they pretended to be ill. With hind sight I felt really bad.

    • Don’t feel too bad – you always try and make the best decisions you can at the time! Anyway, even though I didn’t progress much, I still have a bit of a Chinese foundation to work from now that I need to help the girls, so there was some benefit!

  4. You’re making a brilliant effort! Although we were too young to know at the time, it was the right time to try introducing a second language. We just didn’t have the drive for it then! But sounds like Miss Chu does and as someone trying to learn myself(!) being at least partly surrounded by the language would be a great help. Keep up the good work!

  5. When my boys were little, I had the same struggle as you. My kids were potatoes, like their dad who is also a BBC. I am also anti-tuition at heart, which is why I believe in laying a solid foundation at preschool level, when the kids have more time. I am sharing with you my approach to teach my 3 kids Mandarin and the books I used. My boys are now 12 and 10 and we have managed to stay away from tuition all these years with the kids still managing well enough.

    Hope it helps you in your journey.

    • Thanks Shirley! The trouble for us is it’s my husband (rather than I) who can read and speak mandarin – but I spend much more time with the kids! I agree that a good foundation during preschool yrs is a good idea. We sort of missed that with Miss Chu whilst we were in UK, but her younger sister will probably have a little more time to build up her Chinese during the kindergarten years! I do try to read simple Chinese books to the kids and Miss Chu is already correcting my (admittedly dire) pronunciation. Sigh! ?

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