Do you know which are the top two most commonly spoken languages in the world? Did you study them at school? When I was at school, I studied French, German, Italian, and Latin. None of those languages are the most commonly spoken languages in the world. Do you want to guess? Well, you might be surprised but they are: Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish!
We’re already studying Spanish, in our homeschool. However, I’ve always wanted to be fluent in Cantonese. As the years have gone by, I’ve come to the conclusion that Mandarin would be more future-proof – for my children – and have regretfully shelved my childhood fragments of Cantonese. The problem is: Spanish is easy, but Chinese is full of subtle pronunciation. How does one tackle teaching a language in which one is barely able to string together a “lei ho”, let alone approach personal fluency? (I bet my grandma would be rolling her eyes: words from the heart do not need to be spoken. Plus, my cousins are fluent in English!)
To introduce the concept of tones, I printed 0 to 10 Numbers flash cards and pointed out the pinyin words. I talked about the rising tone, the falling tone, the flat tone, (completely forgot the neutral tone), and the one my younger child chose to describe as up and downy. So far, so good!
We were supposed to do some initial phonics with the HelloChinese app, after the flash cards, but my kids guessed I had a new Gus on the Go app waiting for them…
Gus on the Go
My kids absolutely love the Gus on the Go apps. They’re so colourful, and fun. The lessons are cumulative; you only practice the vocabulary you’ve already learned, but you do continue to revise previous lessons. Gus on the Go (Mandarin Chinese version) is very similar to the Spanish version that we’ve already enjoyed.
The first lesson, in all the Gus on the Go apps, is animals. There are 9 animals, hiding in a farmyard scene. Touch each animal to read and hear the word. Next, there’s a vocab quiz: click on the correct picture, when each word is spoken. Last, there’s a mini-game to reward your hard work. (For the animals mini-game, you blow bubbles to trap all the animals that match the current word.) The other lessons cover food, transportation, clothes, numbers, colours, parts of the body, and shapes. Each lesson is full of interactive fun!
Of the many things that we love about Gus on the Go, one of them is being allowed to go again if you get the answer wrong. It removes any fear of failure, during the vocab tests, because you know the app just shows the correct answer, reiterates the word, and moves on. You keep cycling through the lesson vocab until you’ve got all the answers correct, but you have endless chances to answer – which really encourages young children to keep going. (I’ve taken to telling my kids that FAIL means First Attempt In Learning, as my elder child doesn’t like getting anything wrong. However, when learning with Gus, FAIL really is just the first attempt and you immediately get to try again. Win!)
We were going to look at pronunciation before starting the Gus on the Go app, but we played with Gus, did the pronunciation exercises, and then returned to Gus. To try and help with understanding the tricky tones for pronunciation, we used the HelloChinese app. It’s extremely similar to Duolingo, so most of the exercises aren’t suitable for complete beginners, or very young kids. However, the initial exercises focus solely on phonics. If your children aren’t confident about vocalising the syllables and tones, they can just listen to the pronunciation.
(By the way, being able to pronounce the words is totally not necessary to enjoy the Gus on the Go app. I just want to extend my children’s learning a little, and get them associating the written words with the spoken words, as I think they are old enough to manage.)
Returning to Gus, after our look at pronunciation, I’m not 100% sure if HelloChinese helped. However, I’m pretty sure it didn’t hurt. There’s no question that Gus was the preferred app, though! Gus on the Go is fantastic for complete novices – kids, and, dare I say, adults too (as I rather enjoyed testing the app before installing it for my children).
I’m determined to see how much Mandarin vocab we can pick up, with Gus, and how to support and possibly extend their new Mandarin studies. (I’ve already put together a simple matching worksheet, for the animal vocab. I want to find out how much they’re reading, not just listening.) If you are a Chinese family, or you’re just interested in learning some Mandarin, do give Gus a go. I promise you will love it as much as we do!
Gus on the Go (Mandarin Chinese) is available in the App Store, Google Play, and Amazon. At the time of writing, it cost £2.99 GBP. Other languages are available; there are 28 versions. The Ingush version is free on iOS, in the App Store.