“Atomic Habits” To Learn Mandarin

In James Clear’s New York Times Bestseller book “Atomic Habits”, he created a paradigm for anyone hoping to achieve remarkable results through the tiniest changes.

Clear calls them his “Laws of Behaviour Change”. And the four essential laws are:

  1. Cue            : Make it obvious. 
  2. Craving      : Make it attractive. 
  3. Response  : Make it easy. 
  4. Reward      : Make it satisfying.

If atomic habits can be instilled into adults for results, how about kids? And do the principles work if one is interested to help or encourage a kid to learn Chinese better or to adopt a habit to speak more Mandarin?

The following are some proposed ideas if anyone is keen to apply Clear’s laws.

The 1st Law – Make it Obvious

The first law of behavior is to make it obvious. How this works is through a visual cue – when a child sees something, he is being cued for action. For example, if a child returns home from school, and the first thing he sees is his mobile phone, he picks it up and starts gaming away.

I have learnt this the hard way, and now, I keep both my boys’ phones on my desk, tucked in a corner, away from sight. It still takes efforts on my end to stay firm and remind the two game addicts to return the phones on my desk, but the old saying, out of sight, out of mind, does rings some truth.

But if we like our kids to learn Chinese and be influenced to learn, we need to reinvent the living room and their living spaces, decorated with a lot of cards with Chinese text translation, just like how the supermarkets put on their price tags.

It could be an awful sight, but it will work.

One of the main problem our kids faced when picking up Mandarin – they have immense difficulty translating basic daily life items and vocabulary into Mandarin. Like what is iron called in Mandarin ((tàng)(dǒu))? What is soap ((féi)(zào)) called? And you’ll be amazed how many kids can’t figure this out: how do you say living room (()(tīng))?    

So picture this, mini Chinese text signs that describe the items and spaces littered around the house, and perhaps right at the dining table, where they are facing the kitchen wall, plaster that wall with some phrases of the day – or even better, that day’s dinner menu (they get to learn some Chinese names of the dishes too!).

Habit Stacking to enhance the CUE

And if Clear knows about my intention to teach Mandarin better, he will probably suggest adding on a “habit stack”.

The formula for “habit stack” is a simple “1 + 1”, after completing a “current habit”, the child will proceed to do the “new habit”.

It can be as simple as after the child returns home from school (current habit), he will wash his hands and take a shower (desired habit). Or after he finishes his meal (current habit), he will place the dirty plates into the sink (desired habit).

The idea of forming new habits is to start small, but to do it consistently. And the new habit should almost be effortless from the start.

Take for example, before the child switches on the TV, he needs to watch just 3-5 minutes of video content in Chinese, and if you are having difficulties curating suitable content, here’s a recommendation.

Or before sleeping every night when lying on the bed, encourage the kid to recount an interesting event or an interesting person he/she met using a mix of English and Mandarin.

Habit stacking usually works even better with some positive reinforcement, after he finishes a 10 minutes piece of extra Chinese homework, he gets to play an additional game!

The 2nd Law – Make it Attractive

In Clear’s second step of the habit loop, if a behavior is not attractive, you’ll be hard pressed to take any action. If a person craves for the perks to look slim, he/she will be motivated to eat less and exercise more.

However, in the scope that we’re in – learning Mandarin, we’re in for a major obstacle. How do we make the habit of learning Mandarin attractive? Especially when our kids find that they’re having difficulties and with little or no interest to engage in Mandarin, at all?

In Clear’s bonus chapter on applying this second step with parenting, he urges parents to be role models. His argument is that humans are great imitators and the kid model after his/her parent’s behavior.

There is more than a grain of truth in this, but realistically, we know its hard to achieve the modelling effect.

In more than one occasion, when my elder landed in argument with the wife or myself, he would often exclaimed – “Mum did this!” or “Papa did this too!”

Or when the adults at home pick up the phone from time to time to swipe through social media – guess what? The kid is observing and subconsciously picks up the habit of having the phone by his side, and to check his social media feeds in between his work.

But the big difference is this – our young ones don’t model all our behaviors – they model after the behaviors they crave and desire. For example, when the adult picks up a book to read regularly or exercise regularly, they will likely turn a blind eye. Because that to them is totally not attractive at all.

Creating an attractive environment

The other option could be more feasible. Creating an environment where their peers are doing those same habits of learning Mandarin. Join a group whereby the desired behavior is the accepted norm.

And this is where effective enrichment programs shine. Parents are willing to spend to sign up their primary school kids for a few days of fun Chinese immersion program during the school holidays, and for that few days, the kids pick up a new routine. But eventually, they lose the routine when the program ends.

There is no continuity.

At Vitamin Hour, an hourly online meet up with coaches and like-minded kids every week provides the environment that your kid may need.

During the hour-long learning, they are also rewarded for speaking up and they get to play some games as well – and the learning could and should extend to their daily life routine.

The 3rd Law – Make it Easy

In Clear’s third step of the habit loop, making it easy means to reduce the obstacles the kid faces to pick up a habit.

When its easy to access the habit, the kid will be more willing to engage. It works the same way as scaffolding learning – we start from easy questions, promote confidence and then the learner gets encouraged to move on.

So for example, if you like your kid to read more Chinese books, what can you as a parent do?

The biggest obstacle I find that obstructs the kid from reading Chinese books is not because they don’t like the stories or they don’t like the Chinese characters etc – it’s because they have difficulties to read as fast as English books. They can’t recognize the Chinese characters and attach a meaning to it.

It feels like a foreign language to them.

If you leave the poor kid to struggle with the book with a simple instruction – “Son! This is your assignment for the day. Complete the reading of this Chinese book!” You’re not making it easy for him, but making the reading experience worse!

Cultivate reading habit using pictorial books

There’re a few ways to go about this. For learners with a lower Chinese proficiency level, start from Chinese pictorial books (绘本), these books come with pretty visuals and much fewer Chinese text.

Now, reading a pictorial book will likely take less time and it feels less intimidating with a book full of Chinese text. And if they manage to complete reading one, it’s a milestone to be celebrated! 

The next level could be more Chinese text with hanyu pinyin and the final level, normal Chinese books. The whole idea is about progression, engagement and creating a virtuous cycle. There is no need to compare why at Primary 5 or Primary 4, the kid is still reading a pictorial book while some others have progressed to other books. Once the habit kicks in, the rewards will come, in due course.

And for the younger kids, I would recommend parents to read to them. Point at the Chinese text while reading, and get them to read along – create dramatic fun during the reading process too! The immediate listening and modelling is a great way to nurture the young readers.

If you happen to be a parent with less than ideal Mandarin skills, consider getting a tech reading assistant, there are a host of edutech tools, “pens” and “owls” that can read Chinese text, and from what we read at lahlahbanana (they curate a great list of books to read as well), they worked!

The 4th Law – Make it Satisfying

The first three laws worked to tip the scale for anyone to start on a habit, and to act.

And at the final stage of the habit loop, if the behavior ends with a reward–  we experienced a dopamine hit and we’re much more likely to repeat the same behavior.

Clear provides a simple rule of thumb – “praise the good, ignore the bad”.

And I concur with his advice. Many a times, I have heard parents making innocuous remarks about their kids’ spoken Mandarin: “Her command of Chinese is so bad. I told her that she is a Chinese, how can she not learn Mandarin and say it properly! Even my Malay and Japanese friends can speak better Mandarin than her.”

Or could it be daily life encounters when a parent hears the kid fumbling to find the right Chinese words to use: “Aiyoh! Such a simple word, you also don’t know how to say in Chinese, what’s wrong with you!”

Guess what? You’ve just successfully destroyed the habit loop and it’s no longer satisfying for the kid to attempt at all. It’s futile because Mummy and Daddy always think that my Mandarin is not good enough.

Employ visual rewards system

Rewards need to be seen and felt, and to employ positive reinforcement in a visual way, you can create a Speak Mandarin box/bottle – every time you hear your child attempt to speak Mandarin on his/her own accord, drop in a ping pong ball or a marble, and when the box/bottle is filled, the child gets to buy something that he/she desires. A packet of chips or a cup of bubble tea goes a long way.

On our Vitamin M platform, we have also created a points system to reward our learners. By consistently watching the content videos and participating in class discussions, they earned points which can be used for gifts exchange! Again, it’s not about the value of the gift but more about the feeling of going after a reward.

primarch school chinese enrichment

It always feels good to receive a pat on the back, a wink in the eye and to hear from your peers, teacher and parents – a resounding “Well done!”

Remarkable results and effective changes need time to engineer, and to move towards that end goal, start from the 1% change in our daily behavior to start compounding the returns. Let us know how it goes with cultivating your way of Atomic Habits!

Co-Founder Vitamin M
(Father of two boys, 10 and 7)

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