Link to publication: Mandarin Stars
With the greatest number of native speakers of all languages, a knowledge of Mandarin is a valuable skill. Deborah Nicholls-Lee visited Mandarin Stars, a children’s club which is equipping its students with a language for life.
In Amsterdam Zuid, every Saturday morning, a group of toddlers connect with a culture over 5000km away, while feeling quite at home. They are members of Mandarin Stars, a playgroup with a twist: it’s all in Chinese.
If You Can’t Find it, Found it
Like many parents, Canadian Terry Chan, who founded Mandarin Stars in 2014, had read about the benefits of early language introduction. She was keen for her son Spencer to learn about his Chinese heritage and have early exposure to Mandarin.
“When my son was a baby I really wanted him to start learning Mandarin in a playful, casual atmosphere just to introduce him to the language. I did a lot of reading about how the earlier you start learning a language the better, so I wanted to do something like that with him but there really wasn’t anything in Amsterdam.”
Above all, she wanted Spencer to be introduced to his second language in a relaxed way, unlike her own experience in Toronto. “I used to take Mandarin and Cantonese classes when I was young but it was in such a traditional way. The classes were so boring – I just dreaded it, and it creates a negative perception in your mind.”
The mission is to introduce language in a fun and playful way for second-language learners and, for native speakers, it’s to provide a fun environment where they can practise speaking with people outside of the family.
And she found other Chinese expatriates felt the same way too.
“I met Lu Wang and Xiaoyun Zou, who are native speakers from China who wanted a place where their child could play in Mandarin, speak to other kids in Mandarin and see that it’s not just something that their parents speak to them.”
Together they bought the licence and worked on their shared mission “to introduce language in a fun and playful way for second-language learners and, for native speakers, to provide a fun environment where they can practise speaking with people outside of the family.”
Language Learning Through Play
Terry quickly saw the benefits of learning through play in the progress her son made. “He’s been going to these classes a couple of terms now and he really likes it,” she says. “I’m really happy that he has this positive connotation with it.”
And she’s been impressed by the ability of non-Chinese children to learn the language.
“When you see them in the class, they’ve never heard Mandarin before, but when they repeat a word, it’s perfect pronunciation – so they can really hear the tones. You can really see the kids absorbing it and making progress.”
While the older children get workbooks to introduce the concept of character writing, most activities – particularly in the toddler class – are sensory and based on kinaesthetic learning. What I mistake for Chinese symbols on the table, in the toddler session I observe, are actually pictures of three key words from their playgroup theme drawn with masking tape. The children enjoy repeating the words and then peeling off the sticky images with their tiny fingers. Later, they do an activity with wooden hammering pegs, and then there’s story time and singing. The teacher is superb: gentle, inviting, friendly, and fun.
But there is plenty of structure behind all this enjoyment: “All the activities that we do in the class relate back to the theme.” There are four themes for every ten weeks, which allows time for reinforcement, and each lesson begins with a recap of the vocabulary that they learnt in a previous lesson. “We really take a lot of time to prepare activities that we think the children will enjoy and that is how we differ from traditional Chinese schools,” Terry explains. “We think that if they’re having fun then they’re focused more.”
Whether you speak Chinese at home or whether you’ve never spoken Chinese, it’s for everybody.
Opening Children’s Minds
Beyond the long-term benefits of learning the language with the greatest number of native speakers on the planet, the process of language learning itself is highly advantageous, as Terry explains: “For second-language learners, it’s really opening your world to a whole new culture, a whole new language.” And she has seen the change in her son: “Spencer [now three] is…so much more aware of language now so, even when he sees something in French, he’s like ‘Oh, what is that language?’ It just opens their minds.”
Inclusive and Welcoming
My preconception that this was a Chinese class for Chinese children is quickly quashed by a glance at the demographic on the day I visit, which is very mixed. Terry stresses the inclusive ethos of the sessions: “Whether you speak Chinese at home or whether you’ve never spoken Chinese, it’s for everybody.”
It’s also a very client-centred business, keen to adapt to the needs of their students. “We’re very flexible, so if people come to us and say that it’s hard for them to get to classes, we can also try to arrange private tutoring. We will try to come up with a format that’s going to work for them, so we have that sort of personalised service.”
Personalised, open-minded, inclusive, unique, fun – these are the qualities that make Mandarin Stars so special. Above all, it’s a playgroup – but with an extra dimension: your children come out with a language. That’s amazing.
Mandarin Stars offer three different classes: a baby playgroup (1/5-2.5yrs) where the parents come too, a preschool playgroup (3-5yrs), and the Super Stars class (5-12yrs). They can also arrange private tuition or partnerships with schools as part of their extra-curricular provision. To find out more about Mandarin Stars and the benefits of early language learning, visit their website.
Join them for their Chinese New Year party for kids on 29th January 2017. Check their Facebook page for details.
Mandarin Stars has paid to be featured on Amsterdam Mamas because they believe that their services would be of interest and benefit to our readers, and we think so too. For more information on sponsored posts and advertising on Amsterdam Mamas, please see ourAdvertising and Disclosure policy.
Deborah Nicholls-Lee is a British national who moved to The Netherlands in 2009. A former French and English teacher, she now works as a freelance writer and editor while raising her two children. See her website to find out more about her work.
photo credit: Mandarin Stars