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.

6 Responses to “Searchwords: “why should young children learn mandarin””

  1. Going back to the 1980s, only the most conscientious university students who were really keen would learn Chinese. Those who were keen to improve their employment opportunity would choose Japanese instead.

    In the last eight years or so, things have changed. Nowadays there are more students interested in studying Chinese even though they are doing it for the wrong reasons. Generally speaking students are more eager to acquire communication skills at the expense of learning about Chinese culture and history. Classical Chinese has been taken out of the entire undergraduate syllabus.

    The lack of genuine interest in learning the language and the culture explains the relatively high attrition rate, I must say.

    In my experience, a rather large proportion of Chinese native speakers are lousy teachers. I reckon it’s got something to do with the way they are educated. When compared with other languages (including most other Asian languages), Chinese textbooks (particularly those recommended by Hanban) are too old fashion and generally lack innovation. These factors have also contributed to the high drop out rate.

    In short, Chinese is not an easy language to learn. It’s even harder if you don’t know why you are doing it.

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  2. Knowing a few barks of the local lingo can help some foreigner people to get laid, so from that perspective I do see the point.

    Otherwise, not so much.

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  3. C.A.: Zheng Yongnian in his Global Times article agrees with you:
    China is trying painstakingly to meet international standards but its educational research is actually moving farther away from international levels.
    Explaining the troubles of graduates with the lack of innovation in education alone might be a bit oversimplified – Huang Yasheng seems to have the bigger picture.
    Mylaowai: Your hostile attitude to the Center of the Universe screams for reeducation. I’ll hire some angry taoist dragonflies to take care of you.

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  4. Very interesting. Personally I don’t see what the problem is if 1000 people start Chinese classes and only 100 finish complete studies. Heck, to give an example from my own childhood, we all took intro French in grade 6-8, so thousands upon thousands start French. Then it was optional in highschool. There were perhaps 30 students in each of grade 9-12, out of a school of 800 students, so already the attrition rate is very high. And then of that number, the number who go on to take first year French in University? Miniscule. And the number of those who take it as a first year elective compared to those who actually major in French and get a BA majoring or minoring in French? Beyond tiny. And then take those and see which ones will become actually fluently bilingual? Hmmm,

    Well, I am one of them, and one could never have told from the way I slept through my grade 7-12 French classes. I would never have known even at age 18, starting first year university, that I would one day be living in Quebec, sending my son to a francophone school, and illustrating books published in French for francophone publishers.

    And really, how many people who take English grammar (the anglophones here in Canada) ever end up with a degree in classical English literature? One should conclude from that they shouldn’t bother start classes in the language at all?

    Frankly, I think that ANY learning or exposure to a second, third or tenth language can only do good, allowing one to be more open to other people, other cultures, and just get a perspective on the world that one’s own way of saying things is not the center of the universe. I will probably never study Chinese classics myself, but I am definitely enjoying my excursions into zhong wen.

    (btw, in most subjects, whether Philosophy, Psychology, Biology, first level classes are numerous and huge in universities, and masters levels classes tiny and few… certainly it is not a “Chinese department” issue)

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  5. I agree that any learning or exposure to another language can be useful. On the other hand, university students in Germany usually choose their main subjects to see them through – in that field, Sinology is standing out in that so many are dropping out. The choice of your field of university studies here is usually meant to be much more binding than what you’d choose during the years prior to university.

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