When Ava was just three years old, she started coming home from pre-school spouting off words, phrases, even songs in Chinese, which to be honest, I thought was merely ‘toddler gibberish’.
That is, until we were out to dinner one night, and a friend pointed out the seemingly un-obvious, to me, “You know she’s counting to ten in Mandarin, right?” “Er, what?!”
In Hong Kong, they like to start school at a young age; competition is fierce and in such a heavily populated metropolis it’s believed, education is the key to success.
Born in the fragrant harbour, at the tender age of two and a half my daughter’s class had both a full time English teacher and full time Mandarin teacher.
At parent-teacher interviews, the Mandarin teacher attempted to explain Ava’s progress in Mandarin. “Say what?!”
I knew I had to up my game, so I enrolled myself in online Mandarin classes. (I wrote about the beginning of that journey here.)
It was just as well, because within a year, we moved to the middle of China, where, unlike Hong Kong, English was rarely spoken.
For someone who spoke only one language (and a handful of school French phrases), learning Mandarin (one of the world’s most complex languages) was suddenly at the top of our entire family’s ‘to do’ list, even the hoteliers!
My Small Person, who was at an international school had Mandarin lessons four times a week during our two and a half years in Xi’an, and for the most part, detested them!
I soon learned she was much happier getting in on my weekly tutored lessons, where our young, enthusiastic teacher ‘Vera’ played games and did craft with her, in Chinese.
She also had a great friendship with our Chinese babysitter where the benefits were mutual. Ava would teach the babysitter English and she would teach her Mandarin. Despite my skepticism, everyone told me she really could understand Chinese. Actually in the end, we made quite a formidable team. She was far better at understanding, and I found it easier, speaking Mandarin.
After seven years away, we’re back in Sydney and to be honest, I’m a little surprised, despite Mandarin being the most commonly spoken language in the world (with over one billion speakers), it’s still only taught in a handful of Aussie schools.
Australia might lay claim to being one of the most multicultural countries in the world, yet learning a second language is still not compulsory in many primary schools.
For those schools that take it upon themselves, the language of choice is predominately French, German, Indonesian or Spanish; or in my daughter’s case, Italian (which just quietly, she loves!)
Research tells us, learning any language at any age is beneficial and learning a language as a child, should almost be a rite of passage.
Author of ‘Why Bilinguals Are Smarter’ says, “Evidence suggests the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called ‘executive function’ — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks.”
A study from Pennsylvania State University has found learning a foreign languages provides a competitive edge in career choices, enhances listening skills and memory, and improves the knowledge of one’s own language. Multilingual people, especially children, are skilled at switching between two systems of speech, writing, and structure.
As an added bonus, according to Macquarie University’s Senior Lecturer in Literacy in a Multicultural Society, Dr Robyn Moloney, says, “After learning a secondary language, subsequent languages are easier to learn – patterns can be recognised a lot faster.”
So no matter what language my now six year old is learning, be it Italian, French or Spanish, for now, I’m pretty happy.
But, still, we’re keeping up the Mandarin. For her and for me! (The hotelier on the other hand has called it a day, and I can hardly blame him!)
Some friends have asked, why we don’t we just let it go, now that we’re back on Aussie soil? Touche!
“It’s a pretty tough language, isn’t it?” They query. And yes, it bloody is! Sometimes I’d rather poke sticks in my eye than have a lesson. The same word can mean four different things, depending on the tone you use! Chinese people will even admit to being confused by their own language! (Not kidding!)
We definitely don’t need it the minute we step foot outside our front door anymore, or do we?
In 2017, China is Australia’s biggest trading partner.
By 2020, Chinese visitors to Australia are expected to top the one million mark and pump as much as $13 billion a year into the national economy. Yep!
One thing’s for sure, it’s the Asian Century and our Zhonguo Ren friends aren’t going away.
Consider this: At the moment only eight per cent of the country’s 1.4 billion people actually own a passport. You don’t have to be a mathematician to work out what’s going to happen as the growing (wealthy) middle class increases. There are still millions of Chinese who’ve never travelled outside of China.
Speaking at a recent ACRI ‘in conversation’ event I went to, Colin Mackerras, Australian Professor at Griffith University, said learning about Chinese culture and the language should be regarded as an asset. “There is an emerging Middle Class in China and it’s going to have a big impact on the world, I don’t think we’ve seen anything like it in history.”
Australia China Business Council president, John Brumby says, “The booming Chinese middle class is attracted to Australia for tourism and education, based in part on the clean air, orderly cities and desire of wealthy parents to provide the best for their children.”
Having spent two years in an often extremely polluted Xi’an, where chaos reigns supreme and education is everything, he’s on the money.
There are also increasing numbers of Chinese students coming Down Under to study. According to the Australian China Relations Institute, 140,000 to be precise!
This new generation is a curious bunch, keen to see what the Western world they’ve often only ever seen in movies or on television shows like ‘Friends’ (it’s one of the few western shows they’ve been able to have access to) is really all about.
So, why the resistance to teaching Mandarin in schools? Even the federal government says we should “promote, protect and even privilege the learning of Chinese in our schools.”
The front page of the London Times ran the headlined story ‘Ni hao! The British school where half the day is in Mandarin.’ The theme – parents are hoping to ‘future proof’ their children at a prep school that immerses pupils in Chinese.
It’s well documented that we have a natural ability to learn languages more easily at a young age. Professor of second-language acquisition at the University of Maryland, Robert DeKeyser, believes the ability to absorb a new language effortlessly begins to decline by the age of six.
Having studied Mandarin alongside my six year old, I know which one of us has had an easier time picking up the language!
Even so, I still get howls of protest when it’s time for lessons. To make it more fun, I’ve engaged a uni student from China’s far north to come over to our place and effectively play games in Chinese, and have a chat to me in Chinese afterwards. I figure as long as she doesn’t hate it, i’m on track, for now, anyway.
Chinese strongly believe in the proverb: “Shou ren yi yu buru shou ren yi yu!” You’ll know it as, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach him to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”
So while my small person likes to complain about “yet another Chinese lesson”, I plan to do everything in my power to make sure she’s ‘future proofed.’
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