Multicultural Children’s Book Day Book Review II – First Mandarin Sounds by Amanda Hsiung-Blodgett

First Mandarin Sounds Miss Chinese Panda

Happy Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2022! I am honoured to be selected as a book reviewer for Multicultural Children’s Book Day, and have been gifted a few digital books in exchange for my honest review, to promote book diversity on children’s bookshelves. Here’s my second review.

Multicultural Children’s Book Day Book Review #2

First Mandarin Sounds by Amanda Hsiung-Blodgett

I am delighted to receive a digital copy of First Mandarin Sounds, Amanda Hsiung-Blodgett’s debut book for review.

About the Author

Some of you followers on my blog might be familiar with Amanda, a.k.a. Ms Panda Chinese. She has many Chinese resources and I have even linked to some of her free Traditional Chinese resources in some of my previous posts including her free-eBook in my Dragon Boat Festival Resources round-up.

A Taiwanese-American, she is a native Mandarin speaker and a certified language educator who is passionate about teaching Chinese (Mandarin) by making it fun for young children. If your child is learning Mandarin, I encourage you to check out her website. She offers both Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese resources.

About First Mandarin Sounds

As the title suggests, First Mandarin Sounds is about introducing the essential sounds of Mandarin for young leaners. It focuses on an area that is often overlooked – pronunciation. Most language books for young children are vocabulary-based e.g. My First 100 Chinese Words, hence this is a refreshing change.  While vocabulary is important in the learning of a language, so is pronunciation, especially for those learning it as a second language.


Using Pinyin to Teach Mandarin Sounds

First Mandarin Sounds uses romanisation of Mandarin sounds, 拼音pinyin, which literally means “spelled-out sounds” to introduce 37 core Mandarin sounds. Sounds of Mandarin words have three components –  initials (聲母) and finals (韻母)and tones (聲調). The book features 21 initials and 16 finals.

I heartily approve of breaking down the Mandarin pronunciation to core building blocks to helpful for non-native speakers learn Mandarin.  Similar to learning English phonics and phonograms, it helps to have various sounds isolated for listening and practice.

It is important to note that pinyin is NOT English – the Roman alphabets do not necessarily sound the same way as they do in English, or other languages based on the Roman alphabet or even Jyutping (romanisation of Cantonese sounds). In fact, there are also sounds that are not present in the English language. It is worthwhile teaching children the accurate Mandarin pronunciation right from the start.

This is especially so as the various initials and finals combine in various permutations to form a total of only about 400 different syllables (without taking into account tones), compared to thousands and thousands for English. So, it is not as difficult as it seems and a little work at the start will go a long way in the future.

There is accompanying audio online, accessible by a website link in the digital book which I received, or via the Miss Panda Chinese website. Audio support is essential for non-native speakers to learn how to accurately pronounce the words, and this will be helpful if no one around speaks Mandarin.

(Note for Cantonese speakers: Sounds of Cantonese words also have three components – initials, finals and tones, but there are over 600 different syllables (without accounting for the tones). There are also more sounds that are not present in Mandarin or English).


Inside First Mandarin Sounds

Each of the featured sound is laid out over two pages. The sounds correspond to frequently used Chinese words and phrases which are useful for beginner learners to learn.

Using the Look-and-Find feature, children can find the alphabets of the pinyin symbol embedded in the illustration on the left-hand page. On the right-hand page, they can also find the Chinese characters embedded in the picture, as well as see the full pinyin spelling for the characters, and the English translation.

It is certainly a fun and playful way for children to learn pinyin and to get them to pay attention to some commonly used Chinese characters. The interaction ensures that learning is active, with multiple senses engaged.

The backpages contain a list of high frequency words, a list of some common sentence structures, a pinyin-English-Zhuyin chart and a glossary. (Zhuyin is another Mandarin pronunciation system). For younger children, these resources would probably require an adult’s involvement to guide the child.

There is also a link to the website, where there are flashcards for download, audio support, and more.


Various Editions

First Mandarin Sounds is available in physical and digital format. I am a supporter of physical books for children where possible, especially young children.

There is a Traditional Chinese edition, and a Simplified Chinese edition. I reviewed the Traditional Chinese edition. I was really thrilled to see a Traditional Chinese book with pinyin, as this is rarer, and I usually can only find them in Hong Kong.


My Thoughts About First Mandarin Words

As you can see, First Mandarin Sounds is simple and yet well thought out. The author, using her knowledge of language acquisition and extensive experience in teaching children, has zoomed in on a need for non-native speakers to learn Mandarin pronunciation right from the beginning, and has mapped out a fun and systematic method to teach the sounds to young learners.

I feel First Mandarin Sounds would suit non-native learners, and the author has confirmed this. (see Q and A below). The use of romanisation and its link with accurate Mandarin pronunciation allow children to visualise the sounds, which helps them to remember them better. Breaking down the pronunciation of each word into smaller chunks helps them to isolate and master the sounds. And all done in a fun way.


A Note about Pinyin for Native and Fluent Speakers

There has always been a debate about whether to learn Chinese characters or pinyin/ zhuyin first. If you are a native or fluent speaker, I strongly believe that learning Chinese characters first will be more beneficial, as pinyin can become a crutch that leads one to ignore the Chinese characters.

With my child, even though she was learning Mandarin and Cantonese as a second language, I prioritised learning characters first. For the pronunciation, since we did not use pinyin and Jyutping, we went through each and every word over and over again, and me correcting her as we went along. If she struggled with a word, we would practice each component, and only moving on to the whole word when she mastered the components. Which is a similar concept as First Mandarin Sounds, except I did not do it so systematically, and we did it orally.

Now that she is more familiar with Chinese characters, she has more or less figured out pinyin and Jyutping from incidental exposure, so sometimes I use them for new characters as a memory prompt, but still emphasizing she learns to read characters.


Q and A with Miss Panda Chinese

This was not initially meant as a Q & A, but Amanda’s thoughtful responses to my queries for more background information made me realise that I would do her injustice if I paraphrased them.

1) Is the book aimed at non-fluent kids learning Mandarin as a second language?

Yes, it is. This book is created for non-native-speaking and heritage learners who are learning Mandarin Chinese as a second language or a heritage language.

Pinyin is the romanization of the Chinese language. The use of the alphabet makes Chinese accessible, however, the accurate Chinese pronunciation represented by the English letters can be missed at times. That’s why we often hear trained and experienced news anchors’ hesitation when they read Chinese names. Pinyin is a tool and it can be shared in a simpler way with accurate Mandarin pronunciation and meaningful Chinese words so they can stick. This way the general public (non-native speakers and heritage learners) can connect with the Chinese language with ease.

2) What is the recommended age group for First Mandarin Sounds?

The recommended age is 3 – 8.

Young readers who were tested during the creation of the book enjoyed looking for the hidden letters in the pictures. They are also enthusiastic about spotting the Chinese words that are embedded in the illustrations. As kids search for the Chinese words in the illustrations, they are encouraged to say the words out loud. Since no pinyin is added to the Chinese words in the pictures readers are only looking at the Chinese characters. This book is designed with the Montessori approach in mind.

3) How did you pick the 37 sounds, especially the 16 finals? Is it by ease of pronunciation, speech development acquisition by age, or frequency of use of the finals?

The 37 sounds are the core Chinese pronunciation and it is based on a classic rhyme for children.  Finals Combination creates pronunciation variation so they are excluded to keep it simple. That is why there are only 16 finals. However, the Finals combinations do show up in featured words. This is because I want to use the first language acquisition approach to connect readers with the sound of Mandarin.

With the complimentary audio support of the book, readers can listen to the accurate pronunciation. Let’s take “b – bàba” as an example. In the audio, readers will hear “b” – “bà bà.”  Bà bà (Dad) – a Chinese word that readers can try right away and practice daily. Each sound comes with a Chinese word that combines initial, final, and tone. The purpose of using playful words is to connect the Chinese sounds in a meaningful and comprehensible way. In addition, caregivers can use all the featured words with15 simple sentences in the glossary of the book to start a conversation in Chinese.

I also want to note that each featured Chinese word in First Mandarin Sounds: An Awesome Chinese Book is tested with young readers and is carefully selected. So, the words are relevant to readers. There is also a list of high-frequency words/expressions in the book for parents and caregivers to use and advance further with the book. When parents and caregivers focus on a well-planned target language input (listening and reading) first, the output (speaking) will come naturally. This is what we see in first language acquisition for children. It also works wonders with second language acquisition.

4) Are you planning a follow-up book with the remaining sounds as well as tones?

Yes. What comes next in the series is Mandarin Sounds and Words in Stories. Readers will level up with reading short sentences. At the same time, tones and remaining sounds will be introduced.

For more information about the Miss Panda Chinese, or about First Mandarin Sounds, please visit the Miss Panda Chinese website.

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