The Mandarin Miracle

When we heard our 6 year old daughter was going to learn Mandarin at her new school, BASIS Independent in Brooklyn, I didn’t think it would lead to much. Sure, it sounded impressive. But I took Spanish for years and can barely read the ads in the subway. Mandarin, with its characters and different tones, would be even more difficult.

How much could she possibly learn at school?

Me in Mandarin

Our first surprise 

In her first week, our daughter came home singing a catchy song in Mandarin. That’s pretty cool, I thought. It certainly sounded like Chinese, and she was having fun. She was able to teach me the different tones and a few words.

Waiting for the bus one morning a few weeks later, I heard her having a conversation in Mandarin with a boy who also goes to BASIS. The boy’s mother and I looked at each other as if to say Is this normal? The kids clearly took pleasure in being able to speak a language we couldn't understand a word of.

“He even sings that song in the shower,” the boy’s mother said.

Why I still can’t speak a foreign language

When I met the Mandarin teacher, Na Fan, I finally understood why the children were learning so quickly - and why I never did.

The method I used to try and learn Spanish and Japanese relied on textbooks. I would memorize words and study grammar, but I almost never spoke. Even though I passed the tests, any knowledge I gained quickly evaporated from lack of using it.

Na Fan described a very different approach. “Traditionally,” she said, “learning vocabulary is emphasized: numbers, colors, vegetables, and fruits. But after acquiring all this, kids can’t construct sentences to describe an event or express their feelings.” Na wanted her students to speak from the very beginning.

She had tried various teaching methods, and the one that proved to be the most effective with kids of all ages is QTalk, a system that uses visual cues to help you speak the language immediately. QTalk introduces sentence structure in the first lesson - subjects, verbs, and objects - so you can build sentences and communicate right away.

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In class, Na shows images and pronounces the words, and the kids repeat them and construct simple sentences by putting the pictures and words together. From the first day, Na only speaks Mandarin in class, and the kids speak Mandarin too.

By the end of the first year, the kids that Na teaches are proficiently reading and speaking 250 characters. By the end of the second year, it’s up to 600.

The miracle

My 5 year old son just started kindergarten at BASIS a few weeks ago. One day I came home and found him sitting on the sofa, wearing headphones and staring intensely at a laptop screen. I was about to admonish him for playing a video game, until I heard him repeating words in Mandarin.

“It’s QTalk,” my wife said. “He’s been doing that for an hour.”

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The Mandarin Miracle is the same as the French Miracle or the Spanish Miracle. A modern immersive teaching method plus a caring, passionate teacher can help people of any age learn to speak and enjoy a new language.

Talking with Na Fan, you can feel her energy and commitment, her sense of mission. “Anyone can learn to speak a foreign language using this method.” She’s found something that works, and now she wants to share it with as many students as possible.

I heard QTalk is working on Japanese lessons. I’m looking forward to trying a different, better approach.