More and more American parents want to expose their children to languages other than English. The hugely successful Spanish-speaking Dora the Explorer cartoon character is now an industry in and of itself (various sources claim Dora has pulled in more than $1 billion since her debut in 1999). Thus, it's little surprise to see that there is now a new show that attempts to replicate the success of Dora but in a new language: Mandarin Chinese.
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Ni Hao, Kai-Lan is a bubbly, energetic cartoon show that has already proven highly successful in our household. My 21 month old daughter frequently asks for Kai-Lan, and after allowing her to view one 30 minute episode (commercial-free, thank goodness!), we often have to tell her that Kai-Lan is sleeping or at work (two excuses she is familiar with!) to avoid temper tantrums. I think this show is adorable, but after having seen all 7 episodes 5-6 times each by now, I'm starting to hum the theme song in my head at random times!
The Basic Premise
Kai-Lan is a very enthusiastic and thoughtful Chinese American girl who is almost 6 years old, according to the official Nick, Jr. website, so she's just a little older than the 2-5 year old target audience. She and her band of merry animal friends play together and learn valuable life lessons, frequently after seeking the wise counsel of her paternal grandfather, YeYe (which means paternal grandfather in Mandarin Chinese).
Kai-Lan is always the good girl: she is thoughtful in trying to help her friends, loving and respectful towards YeYe, and never shows any faults or misbehaves. Kai-Lan narrates the story as she directly talks with the viewer, pauses for viewers to answer questions, and seeks out YeYe for advice when there's a problem she doesn't know how to answer.
In addition to dispensing advice, YeYe makes dumplings, does tai chi, shares his drum, and models the right behavior to Kai-lan and her friends. He is the only adult figure who has appeared in the episodes thus far.
The life lessons that viewers are taught come from the foibles of her friends: Hoho, the somewhat hyperactive 3 year old monkey; Tolee, the 5 year old koala bear with an obsession for pandas; and Rintoo, the impulsive 5 year old tiger who is Kai-Lan's best friend.
There is also frequent use of flashbacks when problems arise, as Kai-Lan will try to figure out what's wrong. After her friend Tolee abruptly leaves the group, she might say, Remember what Tolee was doing right before he left?" as a cartoon bubble shows Tolee throwing down his microphone and stomping away. This helps Kai-Lan and her friends revisit the issue and realize what the problem is. She might then say, "Oh, Tolee looks like he's frustrated. Do you think he's frustrated? [long pause] Me, too! Let's go ask Tolee if he was frustrated because he couldn't think of a rhyme!"
Throughout most episodes, Kai-Lan and her friends enjoy singing, dancing, running, jumping, and lots of physical activity that they often encourage the viewers to do with them. Sure, I would prefer my daughter be outside playing rather than watching TV, but at least the 30 minutes she spends watching is sometimes spent dancing along!
Teaching Chinese to preschoolers: can it be done?
Since the most unique characteristic of this show is its incorporation of Chinese, let me briefly address this. Viewers can learn some Chinese words like How are you? (the "Ni Hao" of the title), red and green (the colors of the flowers in one episode), how to count 1-5, and the Chinese words for jump, up, down, and goodbye. Kai-Lan and her friends will sometimes pause and address the viewer, asking children to "help" Kai-Lan by saying the Chinese words. For instance, in one scene where the kids are pushing a toy car, they ask the viewers to say push in Chinese (pronounced "tway") with them. They repeat the word several times so your child can practice saying it.
At other times, Kai-Lan and her friends will just say a word or even a full sentence in Chinese without translating. In the "Kai-Lan's Campout" episode, Tolee unpacks his backpack in the tent and says the Chinese word for every item: his slippers, his sleeping roll, his toothbrush, his underwear, etc. Children can glean the meaning of the Chinese word by seeing the item that Tolee holds up as he says the word.
As a native Chinese speaker (my parents only spoke Chinese at home so I didn't learn English until pre-school/kindergarten), I think it's too difficult to learn a new language with only a handful of words over the course of 30 minutes. In addition, Chinese is a tonal language, so inflection can change the meaning of a word. For instance, the sound "Ma" can mean mother, lecture at/yell at, or horse, depending on whether the tone is rising, falling, neutral, etc.
However, I think this sort of show might inspire a child to WANT to learn another language. Thus, there is definitely a potentially great value in having a cartoon with a bilingual character. The reason why I enjoy this show so much is more for the bicultural themes, playful characters, and the bold bright animation.
The Episodes thus far
Since the premiere episode appeared on Feb. 7 (just in time for Chinese New Year), we have seen 7 episodes of the 20 episode season. We recorded every episode and set our DVR to record all new ones. My daughter loves this show so much, we watch at least one episode a day (sometimes two on the weekends!) so I have seen every episode a minimum of 4 times.
Some of the life lessons learned thus far include (in no particular order):
- Hoho learns to be patient by focusing on something he likes to do while he is waiting,
- Rintoo realizes the value of teamwork and how every individual role is important (as he didn't think carrying the middle of the dragon was an important job)
- Tolee learning that one needs to apologize and then fix the problem (rather than hiding with his sweatshirt hood pulled up when he's embarrassed and feels badly about an accident),
- The whole group discovers that you need to understand your friends' needs rather than basing things on your own perspective when they make a tire swing for the ants that turned out to be too big for the ants,
- Tolee learns to share his toys so everyone can have fun,
- Rintoo learns to stay calm instead of getting mad when he is overly focused on something like winning a dragon boat race, and
- Tolee learns that practicing will help him be a better singer.
As you can see, the episodes each teach a special life lesson and often incorporate Chinese cultural traditions like the Lunar New Year dragon parade. Add into the mix the smattering of Chinese vocabulary and you see how Ni Hao, Kai-Lan differs from other feel-good cartoons.
I love how Kai-Lan does both American and Chinese traditions, like camping out in the backyard and participating in a dragon boat race. I also appreciate that she instills some traditional Asian values, like an emphasis on teamwork and group harmony.
As you can see from the photo, Ni Hao, Kai-Lan uses bright pop animation (as opposed to the drab, washed-out colors of the Looney Tunes cartoons I grew up with). It reminds me of Technicolor rainbow colors you see in old cartoons when someone is dreaming or has been on drugs, or even the Nintendo Super Mario Brothers video games.
I'm surprised at how different cartoons are these days compared to when I was growing up, as I recall lots of Looney Tunes violence and many of them were just set to music without any speaking roles (e.g., Tom and Jerry, one of my favorites). I really enjoy what's to come in the next few years as my daughter grows older if others are like Ni Hao, Kai-Lan. The focus on learning(whether it be Mandarin Chinese or life lessons), the lack of violence, the engagement/interaction with the viewer, and the visually appealing animation make this a winner in my book!
Special thanks to marytara for adding this new show to the database for me!
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Type of Program: Cartoon or Animated
Program Quality: Thought-provoking, original material
Best Suited For: 3 to 5 Years