4 June 2021

The benefit of learning Chinese language is beyond words

| Karyn Starmer
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Students in front of a computer

Students who learn Chinese also gain an understanding of Chinese culture. Photo: Canberra Grammar School.

Learning a language other than English has long been a part of our school curriculums, and when pushed, most adults will be able to remember a few words they learned from their school years.

But despite the best efforts of our language teachers, few of us study languages in the later years of high school and beyond. And, unless you come from a family where a language other than English is spoken at home, even fewer people will be fluent in a second language.

So if we aren’t achieving a bilingual society, what is the point of studying languages at school?

Language educators say there are many benefits beyond achieving fluency. These include improvements in cognitive flexibility, decision making, and important insights towards intercultural understanding.

While most older Australians primarily learned European languages at school, with some Latin thrown in for the classicists, as Australia has grown to take its place in the Asia/Pacific region, the trend to learn Asian languages, Mandarin, in particular, has been growing.

Four government primary schools, five high schools and most secondary colleges offer Chinese language programs in the ACT, along with six non-government schools. Opportunities to learn Chinese in Canberra are clearly flourishing.

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Canberra Grammar School coordinator of Asian engagement Justin Hassall says offering Chinese is not just about teaching language, but showing students how to fully embrace and engage with Asia and the wider world.

”The students of today are our first truly global generation. They will live, study and work all over the world, across cultures and languages, and especially in Asia, so we need to give them the skills and the confidence to engage,” Mr Hassall said.

“Language education delivered across the curriculum enables students to get a grasp of the language but also gain insights into a country and a culture very different to ours.”

Along with learning the sounds, words and characters of Chinese, Justin says students at Canberra Grammar School also gain knowledge of cultural differences, history and geopolitics.

“In the primary years, it is all about the fun stuff, like food, art and costumes, later in the high school years, they can learn about the Cultural Revolution, geography and the Open Door policy.

“We can teach goodwill towards China. This way, in their future lives, if they are doing business in Asia, they will at least have a sense of the differences.”

While Chinese is often perceived as a difficult language, Mr Hassall says students usually enjoy it.

“As a teacher, I make mistakes too, but the students do love to catch me out.

“Language can help break down barriers. Knowing even a few words shows you have made an effort; you don’t have to be fluent,” Mr Hassall said.

Students in a classroom

Canberra Grammar School Students have regular online lessons with two schools in China. Photo: Canberra Grammar School.

Australia China Business Council President ACT Branch Jenny Chen agrees.

“Students who learn Chinese gain insight into behaviours and customs and develop an understanding of Chinese culture,” Ms Chen explained.

She says this helps demystify the differences and helps when negotiating, and facilitates respect.

“When you are dealing with a different country, it is important to understand everything else, not just the words,” Ms Chen said.

Ms Chen said the availability of Mandarin in schools is good for Chinese students too.

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“The Chinese community in Canberra is not as big as in Sydney or Melbourne, many teenagers, not wanting to stand out from their peers, may not speak their mother tongue any more, but then regret a lost ability and a lost identity it when they are an adult,” Ms Chen said.

“Learning langue at school helps them find their identity and be confident in themselves, not just in business but in the wider community in Canberra.”

Mr Hassall says despite the setbacks of the global pandemic and current political rhetoric, there is little doubt that the future will continue to be shaped by Asia’s economic, political and educational emergence as the world’s dominant region.

“By teaching Chinese language, we will not only improve and increase the understanding of the people within our own region, but we will also be and providing opportunities for our young people to prosper.”

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Capital Retro5:35 pm 10 Jun 21

Speaking Chinese didn’t help Kevin Rudd.

i wanted to study Latin and German in high school in the 1960s. Because of the timetable they’d designed I did Latin and Woodwork!

I can’t remember much Latin – difficult to keep it up – but I can recognise most words that began in the Roman world. ‘Latin roots’? And I can make things.

The experience of being a cathedral chorister from age 9 to 17 was I feel as powerful a factor in my development as Latin was, and there’s quite a few bits of latin verse in that tradition, anyway.

Tim Bailey

I am not native Chinese. I was born and raised in Australia. I studied Chinese Mandarin in a Victorian high school from year 7 all the way through VCE. I really enjoyed learning about the language in verbal and written forms. I especially loved learning about the culture.

By graduation I could only remember to say a few sentences about interests and family. I attempted to use this basic language skills to clumsily communicate with a couple of native speaker that I had met. I was embarrassed and not very confident, but felt brave enough to try.

I got increasingly confident as I continued to learn Mandarin and talked everyday with the native speakers when I lived in Taiwan for 2 years. I became fluent in the language and engaged in the traditions and customs of the people.

I have since become a LOTE teacher teaching Chinese Mandarin at a public primary school in Victoria. My students show their excitement and enthusiasm for learning Mandarin by singing some simple songs they’ve learnt or practise some of the phrases with me. It was wonderful to see some of my students come back and tell me that they recognised the character Chang’e and some Mid-Autumn Festival traditions when they watch Over The Moon on Netflix after learning about it in class.

I really enjoy being a part of helping children develop understanding, acceptance and appreciation for Chinese people, language and culture.

At home, I have only spoken to my daughter in Mandarin since she was born. She is now 2½ years old and Mandarin is her main and preferred language. She can also speak some English, but her Chinese Mandarin language skills are much more advance than in English.

Numerous studies have shown that learning a foreign language is one of the best things you can do for your brain, medical studies have also shown that it may delay the early onset of diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

But not only does it force you to think in a new way, it also enables you to travel more and better. You can learn all kinds of insights about other cultures and ways of life when you travel, but the first step towards this is to be able to talk to the people in your destination about more than just the weather.

To this end, we now have Chinese Mandarin and Cantonese classes for adults in Canberra, if you are interested.
Please visit us for more information at https://www.accschinese.com/Canberra-Mandarin-Classes-NextTerm.html.

When students begin language or LOTE studies in schools, a common question is why learn these languages when they already speak English in some of the countries, especially for languages that are commonly taught in schools. One answer would be that knowing foreign languages and the perspective or etymologies of the words can enhance the understanding of English words. For example, the citrus fruit orange in English is referring to the colour, where as orange in Dutch, ‘sinaasappel’ means Chinese apple and refers to the origin of the orange fruit from China, providing another perspective of understanding for the common fruit orange.

It had usually been German or Italian, though nowadays, schools have added languages like Spanish and Japanese. It would be beneficial also for public schools to consider teaching languages like Chinese or the most common forms, such as Mandarin and Cantonese for future prospects. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was known for being knowledgeable in Mandarin and was possibly a large factor for gaining votes at the time of his election.

Going by the way the brain develops, it’s best to start teaching foreign languages even before primary school. Changing the language settings on DVDs, or finding the programs translated into foreign languages is one good way to teach foreign languages at a young age.

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