Mandarin classes in Australia: ‘Chinese teaching Chinese to Chinese’

A soon-to-be released study of enrollments in Mandarin classes in Australia has yet more evidence that the much hyped craze for Mandarin learning isn’t what it might seem to be (as I keep saying).

In Australia, by the final year of senior high school, 94% of those who began to study Mandarin sometime earlier have dropped the subject, and 94% of the relatively small group who remain are ethnically Chinese, resulting in a situation in which “the teaching and learning of Chinese in Australia is overwhelmingly a matter of Chinese teaching Chinese to Chinese.”

Things don’t get much more direct than that.

From a newspaper story that quotes the report:

Unless the drop-out rate is tackled, “there seems little point in planning to expand the number of students starting Chinese at school”.

The report attributes the drop-out rate to three factors. Students studying Chinese as a second language are “overwhelmed” in assessments by “strong numbers” of students who have Chinese as a first language.

Second, they don’t develop sufficient proficiency because of the difficulty in learning Chinese and the inadequate time set aside for it.

Finally, they are trying to learn Chinese “in an often unsupportive environment at school, in their family, and in the community”.

The report, by Dr. Jane Orton of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at Melbourne University, will be presented to a forum late this month on Mandarin language education. I’ll post more once I’ve had a chance to read it.

Thanks to Victor Mair for alerting me to this.


further reading:

5 thoughts on “Mandarin classes in Australia: ‘Chinese teaching Chinese to Chinese’

  1. So what is the problem?! This isn’t at all a rhetorical question to which I’m going to pose a response. I’d really like to hear from those with pedagogical expertise because “how to teach Mandarin to non-native speakers” is an issue that pops up again and again. By coincidence there’s a discussion right now on Beijing Sounds in a similar vein: in this case it turns out to be surprisingly tricky to identify an effective 3-month language immersion program for an adult Mandarin learner.

    At least 3 problems emerge in my mind that seem distinct (or at least distinctly prominent) for native speakers of Indo-European languages studying Mandarin

    1. Script: pedagogy has yet to make its peace with hanzi. My not-so-secret guess is that there is still a huge majority of instructors who believe that if you’re not teaching characters, you’re not teaching Mandarin. The character-memorizing effort takes away from valuable learning time in those critical early years when a student should be getting comfortable with conversing. I used to think this was the only real difficulty of Mandarin, but I’m starting to believe in the significance of the next two items on this list and am open to others as well.

    2. Lack of loan words from Western languages. Even (very non-Indo-European) Korean, a language I have a passing familiarity with, borrows lots of words in recognizable form. Mandarin has very few, even Sinicizing proper names beyond recognition. Of course there’s not much to be done about that — i.e. it’s not so much a problem to be solved as just a fact of life — but it’s a fact that makes second language acquisition harder.

    3. Legacy speakers: I hadn’t thought about this much before reading the article cited above. It reminded me of a true beginning Mandarin class I attended for a few days many years ago at a community college in Los Angeles. The teacher spent the first half of the first day weeding out those who could actually speak and were looking for the easy A. She told the class later she was doing it half by instinct, watching facial expressions as she asked them questions in Mandarin: it’s actually quite hard to fake total uncomprehension. As the Australian case points out, though, it’s a real issue. Legacy speakers need to have ways to develop full fluency, but any program that does not work strenuously get them into programs separate from the true non-speakers will inevitably end up with, as the article puts it: Chinese teaching Chinese to Chinese.

    But are there other major factors? How big are 2 and 3 compared to 1? Are there models that are successful and emulatable that we should be recommending?

  2. Hmm… I’m starting to feel sorry already for all those kids in the future who will be forced to learn hundreds of Chinese characters if Mandarin becomes compulsory in schools in Australia and New Zealand. I already feel sorry for the poor Chinese kids who have to spend so much time learning long lists of English words as well as their characters, but I had some idea that it would be a bit easier for them because they don’t have to remember hundreds of odd written symbols for a foreign language, just the odd configurations of twenty-six of them.

    Since decisions about who learns what are usually based on who has the most money or the biggest guns, I am a bit of a pessimist when it comes to the question of learning Chinese, I’m predicting it will end up meaning that non-Chinese will not only have to have to learn the language, but also the cumbersome script that goes with it. It would be a pity, to force kids to spend hours doing that. Even some overseas Chinese kids don;t like doing it.

  3. Here in Raleigh, NC, USA there is a weekend Chinese school a block from my house with about 375 students. To complicate matters more, the Saturday mornings are devoted to a school/classes run by Mainland Chinese mostly and the afternoons are run by (mainly) ROC Taiwanese folks.
    There is certainly a feeling among the native speakers teaching part time here that one must devote at least as much time to characters. When I started, they were using a wonderful text book in Pinyin but since the native speakers who took over the upper classes could not read their own language in Pinyin, the whole program was changed.
    One of the other great divides in the classes was between who had at least one native speaker parent at home, an important matter since many, many of the young female students are children adopted by American Caucasians trying to give their children a sense of heritage but certainly in no position to help them study at home. A local private high school sponsored by SAS software offers an excellent 4 year program and teaches characters. Some of the other students in my classes were ethnic Chinese teenagers born here who, like teenagers anywhere, would have rather been anywhere else on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon than in a boring class just so they could talk to their grandparents well enough to not embarrass their parents.
    In the five local Chinese supermarkets (we have about 15,000 Chinese in the Raleigh area) it’s a hoot to watch Cantonese grandmothers try to talk with the Mexican butchers behind the counters, neither of them speaking English. The sales signs are all in Chinese and the help wanted signs are in broken Spanish (my Spanish is much better than my Chinese, so it’s an irony I can understand the help sweeping up better than the checkout girl.)

  4. Hi this comment is seven years after the thread, so I will just ask that anyone who wishes to discuss this further reply to this. I am a UK born Irish (Cauc) who speaks Mandarin and have taught it in Germany. The biggest factor in teaching Mandarin effectively in my experience is translating the Chinese experience, which is hard enough as there are so many pitfalls and, basically, taboos. I handed over one course to a Chinese native speaker and she reverted to chalk and talk. The principle I think is in what the target of learning it is, interesting it’s the same in Japan with Japanese, they rarely seem to use any interesting cultural elements in Literacy programmes which demotivates their own learners so that language becomes functional. Finding a reason to learn that isn’t just functional I think is really important. There are many interesting books now in 2015 that offer interesting content for non native Chinese learners, such as ‘Age of Ambition’ by Evan Osnan (sic). Maybe until now there are fewer conceptual routes into understanding China per se which add to difficulties in learning Chinese, one of them is of course dependence on memory, perhaps this is changing.

    MIck Hunt
    redtomyam at live dot com for replies if this comments board does not auto send updates, many thanks for reading, hope I get some comments back. Am hoping to teach Asian Studies in Aus ‘one day’ !! Have a good day.

  5. oops one more.
    In answer to ‘Beijing Sounds’ ‘ comment above – do you think learning Chinese is more behaviourally linked, I learned quite simply because I was in China and I was hungry – I wanted what they had on the next table which looked good. Sometimes I got it wrong, asking for an egg dish and getting pork neck sticks in my memory – that motivated real learning.

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