Archive for July 2nd, 2009

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Searchwords: “why should young children learn mandarin”

Counter question: Should they? And if so, yes, why should they?

There is no such debate about English in Europe, and if the unanimous support for English as a mandatory foreign language is due to globalization, this globalization must have been with us for more than three decades (some argue that it started when the Spaniards learned the art of blood donation from the South Americans, but seventy years ago, a second language was hardly mandatory at German elementary schools).

I had to learn English from the age of ten, and there was no question about the need for a child to do so. But then, if there is a global language, it’s English, and it will remain English. For a lot of European kids, that’s demanding enough.

Chinese as an optional second or third foreign language can make perfect sense, but not for every child. The Three Eight Hundreds aren’t for everyone. Even among university students, many learners drop out. Out of more than 2,000 of those who enroll in Sinology annually in Germany, only some 100 actually complete their studies, the Federal Statistical Office says, according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. One reason may be that many students get hired by a chinabound company or organization ahead of their final exams or graduation. But the paper also quotes disillusionment after a first stay in China as reasons, as well as frustration with the learning process – students usually start at zero, and Chinese is a very foreign language -, and when classical Chinese is part of the curriculum, its alleged pointlessness might add to the frustration, too.

Children may find the learning process easier. But they are also easily frustrated. And while grown-up learners will be well-behaved (as a rule, anyway), minors are a different story.

For one, unruly pupils may pose a threat to Mandarin projects and its often unprepared teachers. If Westerners go through a culture shock when working in China, many Chinese nationals teaching in Europe may be going through outright hell. (JR isn’t sure if he should blame the Chinese teachers, the school managers who hire them without preparing them, both, or someone else. It sure shows that teaching is no bed of roses here.)

Even if the kids were all happy learners, some parents would still impair the process. A Chinese blogger describes how it may go:

A Chinese teacher a taught first-form primary school student Chinese. Her father, an educational service official, took a strong interest in his daughter’s learning progress and had hired the Chinese teacher as a home tutor. He heard her teaching his daughter this line: “他有3个苹果,你有四个苹果,你比他多多少?” He asked the tutor what it meant. “Oh,” she cheerfully replied, “that’s easy. It’s how many apples do you have more than he has?” The educational official, on hearing this string of Chinese-style English, almost fainted. “What? Such a difficult question? Even an adult’s brain needs to take several bends to understand that – how can you teach that to a child?”

Oh my God! My child’s brain might catch wrinkles!!

Something is being done about the problems with Mandarin at school, hoped Richard Spencer, who until recently was the Telegraph‘s correspondent in Beijing.

But one of the most important measures is this: make sure that only pupils with a) a lot of interest in learning Chinese, b) the proneness to learn it (there are different types of learners), and c) an established record of patience and perseverance are allowed to join Mandarin classes.

In that case, you may not even need a culturally prepared teacher. If the curriculum should be left to the Hanban (Chinese Language Council International) which is after all a CCP-controlled organization, is still a different question. Personally, I think that native speakers teaching Chinese can be very helpful, so long as the school management makes sure that there is no open or discreet political manipulation in the classroom.

Sure, it’s nice to imagine how the offspring of some ecologically aware, Dalai-Lama-loving, well-off holistic treehuggers spoils a neighborhood garden party by proclaiming that “Han Chinese and Tibetans are a harmonious family”. If the parents are no babbitts, they may even savor the magic of such a moment. But if the same child says and believes the same bullshit after having grown up, say a decade and a half later, it will probably have become [indefinite article] [adjective] [noun]. And in such a case, you might correctly blame school for that.

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