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Mandarin is Child's Play for Some Expat Families


Mandarin is child's play for some expat families

Hotelier Michael Faulkner and his teacher wife Michelle have their children Laura and William attend a bilingual kindergarten, and even the baby, Tessa, understands Mandarin. Photos Provided to China Daily

Schools set the right tone to help young language learners, reports Mark Graham in Beijing.

Few parents like to be corrected, or contradicted, by their children. But there are exceptions to that general rule: Expatriate parents living in China tend to swell with pride when their Mandarin-speaking children point out that mum and dad are totally mispronouncing words, or hopelessly mangling grammar.

Children born in Beijing, or who arrive in the capital at a very young age, have every chance of attaining fluency in Mandarin. It is not uncommon to see blond-haired children chatting away colloquially, having naturally mastered the tricky tones that adult learners find so fiendishly difficult.

For babies and toddlers, chances are they will spend much of the day with their ayi (domestic helpers), individuals who rarely have any language skills apart from their native Mandarin. Some parents ensure that their kids are bilingual by sending them to schools where classes are given in English and Mandarin.

Australian Laura Faulkner, 6, and her brother William, 4, have attended several such schools, allowing them to switch with ease between English and Mandarin. Their Beijing-born sister Tessa, who is 18 months old, can also understand both languages.

When the Faulkner family moved to Beijing four years ago, hotelier father Michael and teacher mother Michelle viewed it as a great opportunity for their children to grow up speaking, reading and writing Mandarin, skills that are almost certain to be major assets on their resumes in the 21st century.

Communication essential

"We thought it essential that they were able to communicate with other children, in the park or in the playground, and we looked for a bilingual kindergarten," said Melbourne-born Michelle, who is also studying the language.

"They now speak the language fluently, have an understanding of Chinese culture and feel at home living in Beijing rather than seeing themselves as visitors. Laura can write her Chinese name, recognizes many Chinese characters, and can write simple characters.

"The other day we were on the way home in the car and she wanted to speak Mandarin, not English, so I tried. She told me that my Mandarin sounds strange. When I asked her what she meant, she said that I don't say it correctly and proceeded to explain. She said I say shu (tree/plant) wrong and demonstrated the correct tone. I repeated it five times but each time she said no, it still sounds strange! Eventually I said: 'I am doing the best that I can!'

"Earlier on, we had times when she refused to speak Mandarin and found reasons not to join in the Chinese activities at school, either because she did not understand, or felt left out. So we had to move kindergartens to find a more suitable bilingual environment. Many say that children learn languages like a sponge, but I still think that there are times when it has been hard work for our kids."

Although the Faulkners' spell in the city will be finite - Michael is manager of the new Swire hotel, East - they are convinced a bilingual education for their children will be beneficial both now and in future.

"The bilingual system is very impressive here," said Michelle. "The facilities and varied lessons that our kids get here are excellent. They have specialist teachers in art, physical education and music, which supplement the bilingual program."

That kind of educational program is not for every family. Some expatriates would dearly love their children to learn Mandarin but realistically, have to stick with schools that offer the language of their native country, be it English, French, German or Japanese, and a curriculum that is broadly similar to that at home.

International schools in the capital city do make an effort to include Mandarin lessons in the curriculum, scheduling up to five hours of classes weekly, but it is not really enough for the students to reach any real level of fluency, especially if they have limited opportunity to speak the language at home.

Bilingual schooling offers a halfway house where, in theory, youngsters become proficient in both languages. Critics argue that there is a danger of their overall education being diluted by participating in such a hybrid system.

There is a third, more radical, option open to expatriates that pretty much guarantees that their kids will become fluent in Mandarin. Some local public schools have international divisions that accept foreign passport holders, although there is no attempt to modify the local rote-learning system.

Australian Mathew Alderson has two children in local schools, Nik, 7, and 4-year-old Natalia, and after two years of immersion, can see the pluses and minuses of this kind of approach. There might not be much in the way of touchy-feely teaching methods, but the trade-off is kids who are fluent in Mandarin and whizzes at math.

"While we remain committed to the attainment by our children of a high level of Mandarin fluency and literature, after several years of exposure to the Chinese system we are now starting to better understand the price that must be paid for this," said Sydney-born Alderson.

"It is necessary to compromise on the standard of the children's English and to accept educational practices which value rote learning over creativity, comprehension and problem solving. Our son is in the first year of school and in order for him to cope with the workload, he now needs a tutor for two hours, three times a week."

Alderson said the Chinese system is not for the faint-hearted. "I would recommend it only to people who are staying indefinitely in China, or who truly place a high value on Chinese literacy and Mandarin fluency."

"If you are here for a finite period, it is probably better to stick with an international school so your kids will slip back into a recognizable curriculum on their return home. Still, you need to appreciate that if you go that way, your kids' Mandarin will never be all that good."

The Alderson children, who speak Russian at home with their Ukrainian mom Sasha, will most likely go to an international school at some future date, which means the annual fees will quadruple. The cost of a year's schooling at international establishments such as the Western Academy of Beijing, Harrow or Dulwich, nudges the $30,000 mark, almost four times the cost at local public schools that accept foreign students.

Rapid advances

Australian Hayley Downes has experienced both systems since arriving in the country four years ago with Australian father Justin and Canadian mother Kirsten. She went from attending Albert Park Primary School in Melbourne to an international school in Beijing before enrolling last year in the No 55 Middle School, where students are taught in Mandarin.

The teenager struggled for a while, finding it difficult to follow the technical terms, particularly in science class, but has since flourished. The immersion process has meant rapid advances in her written and spoken Mandarin.

"It got me to learn a lot faster, but it doesn't mean I understand it fully. But I learn it. I just had to get on with it. I would say I am about 75 percent fluent; my grammar is the big problem," she said.

"Overall, I think that studying at a local school is a good experience and it will be useful long term, it will open more opportunities. One downside is that there is not much sport, or extracurricular activities, such as art, or clubs. And I do miss my Australian school uniform, we have to wear fleece even when it is 35 degrees!"

One significant factor for parents who ultimately aim to have their children attend university in their native country is that schools such as No 55 Middle School offer the International Baccalaureate system, which is recognized by institutions of higher education in Australia, Europe and the United States.

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!"