Mandarin is expat child's play

Updated: 2012-09-03 07:38

By Mark Graham (China Daily)

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Whichever system they choose - bilingual education, local school or personal tutor - no parent is likely to regret insisting that their child learns Mandarin. It is certain to be an asset in the 21st century, as China continues to grow, and links with other countries become closer.

In the shorter term, acquiring language skills allows expat kids to thoroughly enjoy their time in China, interacting with locals and better understanding the culture; Beijing people are invariably amazed by expatriate youngsters who can speak street-level Chinese.

Learning language does have its funny moments, too, as lawyer Alderson can attest. He allows himself a quiet smile - and a warm glow of pride - every time Nik or Natalia acts as translator.

"I am studying Mandarin myself and the kids enjoy correcting me," he said. "They have their limits though. The other day I was doing some qigong, a form of exercise that focuses on breathing and posture, with an elderly Chinese master at the Temple of Heaven with my son looking on. All of a sudden the master started pointing at the sky and saying something in Beijing-hua, the local dialect. I thought maybe he was talking about qi (breath) coming down from the heavens or something like that.

"My son didn't know what he was on about either but finally we worked it out. He was saying: 'Better get out of here, I think it's going to rain!'"

Drawbacks in the system

Australian Rob Dean - a fluent Mandarin speaker - is determined that his two boys will grow up bilingual.

Both attend Fangcaodi Elementary in the heart of Beijing, a public school that has an international wing, where children of all nationalities receive all their lessons in Mandarin. Dean and his wife Ruan Yixuan reasoned that would be the best way to ensure the boys have total command of Mandarin from an early age - although they may well attend an international school at a later stage.

"I studied Mandarin and have lived in China for 18 years, so I know just how hard it is," said Dean. "My wife and I discussed their education and we agreed on letting them do their primary education in Mandarin with an eye toward getting a firm grip on the language that will remain with them for life. Obviously learning Mandarin is much easier when your brain is young and free of beer!

"We are a bilingual family. My wife is from Beijing and the kids will always be half-Chinese. Thinking about their future, and the world they will likely be trying to make a life in, having a Chinese heritage, but no language abilities seemed like a cruel trick to play on them."

For all that, Dean recognizes the drawbacks of the system, in particular the lack of emphasis on creative thinking and the limited sporting opportunities. The school takes the traditional view that children are there to learn as much as possible in a disciplined environment, not to be mollycoddled.

So far, Dean is happy with the results. Lachlan, 9, reads and writes fluently in Mandarin and is also fluent in English, while Oliver, 6, can write stories that utilize several hundred characters. The brothers speak English at home with their father and - of course - watch English-language television from Australia, the US and the UK.

The family is likely to be in the capital for some years to come given that Dean runs a successful employment communications agency that helps companies attract, and keep, talented staff.

Although trips to Australia are infrequent, Dean tries to ensure the boys know all about that country's culture, history and sport. He has even taught them the words to Waltzing Matilda, Two Little Boys and other classic Australian songs, and explained the rules of cricket. They have plenty of pals who come from a similarly mixed background.

"They tend to bond well with other mixed kids," says Dean. "Their best mates are all mixed Chinese where one of the parents is Australian, American, Canadian or so on. But they do have Japanese, Brazilian, Italian, Korean and Chinese friends too. It's just that they probably associate better with those who have an English language home environment.

"The other day I asked them where they considered they were from and they said they were half Chinese, half Australian. In the past, they have said they were Australian. I suspect their identity might change from time to time, depending on the audience. How very human of them!"

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