A Unique Approach to Teaching Putonghua

【Interview with Sarah Lao, Co-Founder and General Manager of Da Di Mandarin】

With more and more parents becoming interested in enrolling their children in Putonghua classes, Co-Founder and General Manager of Da Di Mandarin Sarah Lao shares the secret to ensuring students learn Mandarin happily and independently.

A native of Shandong province in China, Sarah is an expert in dance and drama. After studying English and drama in Canada, she came to Hong Kong and earned her Master of Fine Arts in Drama degree at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Seven years ago, Sarah decided to become a Putonghua and art teacher – a decision that was to eventually lead to the establishment of Da Di Mandarin.

Da Di Mandarin was formally established in Hong Kong in July 2016, in partnership with the Taiwan-headquartered Dadi Early-Childhood Education Group which has been in operation since 1985. Taiwan’s Dadi Early-Childhood Education Group is an international kindergarten group offering instruction in English and Mandarin through 536 campuses across Asia. With the rich experience of Taiwan's Dadi Early-Childhood Education Group, together with teaching materials that specifically address the needs of the Hong Kong market and are aligned with the Hong Kong education system, Da Di Mandarin has become a comprehensive Putonghua learning center. What sets Da Di Mandarin apart from other learning centers is it’s focus on promoting happy learning and independent creativity. In addition to its first school campus (which is located in Wong Chuk Hang), Da Di Mandarin has also opened a second school campus in Central in June 2018.

The textbooks and materials used by Da Di Mandarin have all been created as the result of many years of research and development, and are well-suited for use in Hong Kong’s international kindergartens and international schools. The contents are very comprehensive and include multimedia resources, videos, reading books, story books, vocabulary books, primary school language books, children's song collections, toys, and more.

In terms of teaching methodology, Da Di Mandarin offers small classes with a teacher-student ratio of one teacher for every four students. Courses are divided into four sections - listening, speaking, reading and writing - and are tailored according to the level and ability of each student.

At present, most of the students at Da Di Mandarin are children between the ages of one-and-a-half to seven years old. Therefore there are more students enrolled in the beginner and intermediate level Putonghua courses. Before students enroll in a course, they would have a trial class in which a teacher would play and interact with them in Putonghua. They would then be placed in a class according to their Chinese ability, receptiveness, literacy level, as well as their reading and writing skills. Considering each student’s age and skill level, they are then taught in accordance with their aptitude. As a result, Da Di Mandarin courses are very popular with parents and students. Classes have filled up quickly ever since the opening of the first Da Di learning center.

Sarah believes that communicating well with children is extremely important. If children feel happy when they are taking Putonghua classes, they will like to come and learn. During the classes teachers and students practice listening and speaking together, and also use word-recognition games to form sentences. In this way, students are able to learn Putonghua easily and happily. In creative writing classes, the teachers will first inspire students to develop creative ideas together with them. The students then learn to narrate and write stories by themselves, gradually building their self-confidence in the process.

Currently Da Di Mandarin also offers special arts courses such as a Chinese Kung Fu class where students will learn to recite the Di Zi Gui (a text based on the ancient teachings of Confucius) whilst learning Kung Fu. As for dance classes, students will sing songs whilst they dance. Learning in such an environment, the students all say that they are very happy to come to class, and that they like their Putonghua classes very much.

The teachers at Da Di Mandarin are all native speakers of Mandarin. All have academic qualifications from China, and have earned master's degrees. To ensure that the Putonghua taught by the teachers is of a high standard and without accent, all teachers must achieve the second level or above in the Putonghua language proficiency assessment for teachers. They must also be bilingual and have experience studying or working abroad. Sarah is very happy with the teachers who teach at Da Di Mandarin. They are very caring and patient. They also have an understanding of child psychology and provide a high level of teaching.

Through the courses at Da Di Mandarin, children can quickly learn to express themselves in Putonghua and improve their self-confidence, making learning easier and more autonomous. 95% of the students currently enrolled at Da Di Mandarin are international school students, and amongst these, 90% have successfully passed their school interviews. Students who interview well will naturally be able to enter their ideal kindergarten or primary school. Before starting kindergarten, students who attend Da Di Mandarin can usually chat easily with other people for ten minutes. After going through the Da Di Mandarin curriculum, some students can progress from using Putonghua as a second language to using it as a first language in just a few months; from only being able to write words and phrases to writing creative essays of 200-300 words. Sarah believes that the language environment is very important and can inspire independence in learning.

Sarah shares the experience of one of her students – a Eurasian boy with a Malaysian Chinese mother and a French father. He first became a student at Da Di Mandarin when he was only a little over two years old. Because he rarely spoke, Sarah took particular notice of him. When he started classes at Da Di Mandarin, his teacher first just spent time playing with him. Then step-by step, by telling Chinese stories and singing Chinese children's songs, the teacher gradually taught him to recognize Chinese characters. The teacher noticed that he liked to hold pencils, draw, and recognize words. He started to develop an interest in learning Chinese. When he saw his elder sister writing, he would also write himself. At home, he started speaking Putonghua with his mother. Before going to bed, he would listen to his mother telling Chinese stories. During this period, he attended Putonghua classes three times a week, and during the summer he went to Putonghua summer camp classes every day. In this language environment, he was able to pass the General Aptitude Putonghua Shuiping Kaoshi (GAPSK) and Kiddies’ Putonghua Certificate in Communication (KPCC) exams when he was less than three years old. Now that he has just turned three, he actually says that his first language is Putonghua, his second language is English, and his third language is French. As Sarah personally witnessed his progress, she is delighted.

Since its establishment two years ago, Da Di Mandarin has been very well-received by parents and students. In view of this, Da Di Mandarin opened its second learning center in Hong Kong in June this year. It is located in Central, and is actively enrolling students in its Putonghua courses.

Sarah feels that in general Hong Kong lacks a Putonghua environment in which to practice the language. Therefore, she hopes to meet the demand in the Hong Kong market by opening a few more learning centers in order to bring the vision of the Taiwan Dadi Early-Childhood Education Group to Hong Kong. The goal is to inspire children to learn independently in a relaxed and happy language environment, through a diversified learning experience, whilst developing the "Dadi" brand.

What Sarah finds most rewarding is seeing students learning happily. When the students are happy, the parents are happy. In the future, if they come across kindergartens with similar ideology and educational methods, Da Di Mandarin would welcome the opportunity to co-operate and develop with them.

At the moment, parents generally find out about Da Di Mandarin from other parents' recommendations or online platforms. Sarah hopes that more parents will get to know them through good word of mouth. Da Di Mandarin is listed on whizpa.com, and Sarah is looking forward to receiving more feedback from parents on Da Di Mandarin courses.

 

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