Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Learning Chinese

My boy was accepted into the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) Academic Languages Program at Mount Lawley Senior High School. School commences next week and we are getting ready through purchasing uniforms and school books.

My daughter has been a participant in this program in the past two years, going into year 10 now. She had the luck of being allowed to learn two languages since year 8. Tuition in German is part of the GATE program and she chose Italian as other language within the normal school curriculum. She is doing well and received highest marks for both languages, most likely assisted by the fact that we speak German at home.

Since 2010 only one language can be selected  by students in the GATE  program and there is only a choice between Italian or Chinese. As my boy has been learning Italian in Primary School for seven years and still cannot say much more than his name, age and what he likes doing after school, he decided to learn Chinese. He is a bit weary about this journey, especially since his sister told him that many students complain about how hard it is to learn Chinese.

I have been interested in the Chinese language since a trip to Hongkong and Guangzhou in 1985. I spent two weeks with a friend in Kowloon. To overcome important language barriers with cab drivers I was taught to say in Cantonese: "Please drive me to Kenedy Road number 37, at number 31 please turn right". I have never forgotten this sentence and practice it now and then with Cantonese speakers I meet in my life. Not always successful I might say, as my pronunciation surely changed significantly in the past 25 years with the experience in Hongkong beconing more and more faint. Also my teacher was a non-native speaker.

German is my mother tongue. Plattdeutsch or Low German, a dialect was spoken in our house during my childhood. I learnt English from year 5 and French from year 7 at school, later added some Iitalian in evening school as I liked the Italian life style and spent a few holidays there. At University after my law degree I studied Indonesian and even worked as a junior lawyer for the German Indonesian Chamber of Trade and Commerce (Berkumpulan Ekonomi Indonesia-Jerman) in the late Eighties. But all these languages are using the same script and work in a similar frame of mind. If a German speaker reads aloud an Indonesian text and pronounces each word as if it was written in German, an Indonesian speaker is able to understand what was said.

My decision to join Miles in learning Mandarin came from the heart. I will purchase the same workbook and use additional sites on the internet to speed up my speaking. My friend Dr Mandy Scott from Canberra has been involved in the Association for Learning Mandarin in Australia. She visited us with her mother on the last weekend and we had a chat about how hard it is to learn the language. Apparently the time to aquire comfortable language speaking levels have been estimated and contemplated for English speakers. People agree that Mandarin is among the most difficult to learn languages.

But I suspect that in our case the advantage of already knowing and speaking more than one language will be significant. Also I understand that the grammar of Mandarin is simple. However, the focus of tuition on acquisition of written literacy seems to be the difficulty for new students. If we keep up the conversation in our practice we should be right. Also my daughter's best friend is a native Mandarin speaker and we can get special tuition from her.

We have a plan and encouraging experiences are available from across the ocean. Multilingual Living, a network of multilingual people based in Seattle. They ran the Language Challenge -101 where people were learning a new language over 101 days. They had many participants and their experiences are documented on the website. People had fun learning another language, within their own setting and at their own pace.

This is an inspiring idea. I missed the boat that time but am now determined to take the chance and give it a good shot! I promise to post updates of the journey on this blog. If anybody wants to join me?! We just copy the model from Multilingual Living and give it a go! I am in it and will give it my best shot!