Education: Learning Chinese in the Asian century
Jane Orton outlines the challenges for secondary school students studying Chinese language in Australia following the recent release of the government’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper implementation proposals.
Education is a strong plank in the platform of proposals, but there were only two references to what might be sought after in the area of Asian languages education: all school students are to “have access to” the continuous study of either Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian or Hindi, and they will be “encouraged to continue their study.”
We had to wait a further five months, until April 1, 2013, for the release of the government’s final implementation plan for White Paper proposals, but even there, the concrete details of funding and scheduling of educational developments are missing, reportedly because they are embedded in packages involving the full range of Gonski recommendations for the financing of education yet to be accepted by state ministers of education.
Online courses can be adequate for instruction, but fixed courses are limited in responsiveness to individual needs and interests, and even interactive online learning can be a lonely business unless very well and intelligently supported at the student end. Good online activities are great supplements to a school-based program, providing more than an individual teacher might be able to provide. Human contact though is very important in success at school, so except in remote areas, it should be cheaper and more productive long-term to hire a local teacher.
These have been particularly aimed at primary learners. They have also provided some school hubs with an Exploratorium, a set of interactive resources presenting topics from Chinese history and culture. The Hanban also funds speaking competitions and has supported initiatives to link schools in the two countries via the Internet. Their greatest impact to date on provision, however, has been their excellent educational tours to China for pairs of Australian school leaders, who visit classes, meet counterparts and see the sights of major cities.
More importantly, a major factor in the situation is that the learning challenges of these elements are poorly understood by teachers and not well taught, sometimes barely taught at all. As language teacher training in Australia is generic (all languages in together), and virtually no language teacher educators know Chinese, trainee teachers of Chinese do not get the information and training in technique they need to help students manage the very specific challenges of Chinese; and as most of the teachers are first language speakers themselves, they have no understanding of the nature of the learning problems their language presents to an outsider. Furthermore, most teachers of the language in Australia grew up in a very different education system, one where memorization of facts was valued, not the development of intellectual curiosity or the internalizing of material through engagement with it in a variety of activities.
By Australian standards their lessons are often narrow and dull, and the learning made more difficult than necessary as nothing is done to alleviate the huge burden on memory that Chinese, with its strange vocabulary and all those characters, presents. These are the factors that “encouragement” needs to target if it is to be effective.
As Year 12 assessment is rank ordered, the more super-proficient home users naturally come in ahead of even the best classroom learners of the language, and the latter find themselves slithering down the score chart not because of any lack in their learning or progress, but simply due to the overwhelming numbers ahead of them (something like 820: 150 in Victoria, 650: 80 in NSW). Students who expect to get in the 40s (out of a maximum of 50) in all their subjects end up with 32 or 27 for Chinese.
This is devastatingly unrepresentative of their effort or capabilities to learn Chinese as a school subject, and those who experience it are often too wretched to talk about it even months later. Such a score is of little use towards university entrance, and schoolmates and younger siblings looking on often draw their own conclusions and drop the language once they can, or simply choose to learn another one with a higher chance of reward. Parents can only agree, while schools, so intent on maintaining their Year 12 ratings in the market, don’t argue.
A small school, built alongside huge old public housing flats in an inner city suburb now home to as many professionals as refugees, WRPS runs hugely successful [separate] bilingual programs in Chinese/English and Vietnamese/English, as options to its English-only program.
In the bilingual programs, at midday on Wednesday the children simply shift from English to their second language and keep going with their schoolwork. I can attest to the fact that their results in Chinese are fantastic: 22 kids from English speaking homes in each of Prep, Grade 1 and Grade 2, who think in Chinese, speak it fluently and naturally with anyone, Chinese or not, and write away in characters with speed and accuracy typical of their age. The key to the success of WRPS is that it is, first and foremost, a good school across the curriculum; secondly, the program is voluntary; and thirdly, of course, the language is also well taught. Research has long shown that the drivers for language acquisition are need and opportunity. For the students of WRPS, learning Chinese is genuinely meaningful: they use Chinese as they do English, as the means to socialize, to find out about the world, and to express themselves.
It doesn’t take much money to achieve, it just takes understanding of the task and skilled teachers. ■
*Jane Orton, PhD is Director of the Chinese Teacher Training Centre (CTTC) at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, a research and professional development centre for the teaching and learning of Chinese in primary and secondary schools. In the past five years she has published several research projects into Chinese language education. Her latest publication is: Developing Chinese Oral Skills – a Research Base for Practice, in Research in Chinese as a Second Language. Jane has been a member of the ACBC since 1987 and served as a member of the Executive and Vice President of ACBC (Vic) from 1995-2001. She is currently a member of the ACBC (Vic) Education Sub-Committee.