I wrote a post earlier this year about Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s goal of dramatically increasing the number of Australian students studying Chinese and other Asian languages.The specific goal, in terms of number of high school students studying Chinese at grade 12, was 8,000 students by the year 2020.
So far, it isn’t working out. Why?
Because learning Chinese is very, very difficult.
Regular readers know how much I harp on the illusions people have about learning Chinese. What’s happening in Australia is illustrative of some of the many difficulties involved in implementing a successful Chinese language program in an English speaking country.
First, many of the students in the class will already speak Chinese, because their parents are from somewhere in the Chinese diaspora. From the Age article I just linked to, “Demand for Asia study overhaul”:
“…a new report reveals that the study of Chinese in Australian high schools “is overwhelmingly a matter of Chinese teaching Chinese to Chinese.
…It (a study into the results of Chinese language programs in Australian high schools) finds that 94% of students who learn Chinese at some stage during their education drop out before year 12.
Of the 4% still studying the language at year 12, 94% are “first language” speakers — Chinese-born or of Chinese descent.”
How are kids who grew up speaking only English going to compete and feel motivated in such an environment? Classrooms will be sorely out of balance, with groups of complete novices taking the same class as groups of fluent speakers.
The other problem, of course, is that even if you fixed the imbalance in the classroom, very, very few people have the discipline and tolerance for frustration that it takes to learn fluent Mandarin. From the article:
“The report calls for action to stop the massive drop-out rate from Chinese language classes by students who can’t compete with classmates who are native speakers or of Chinese descent.
It casts doubt on Mr Rudd’s target of 8000 year 12 students studying Chinese by 2020, and proposes a revamped curriculum to accommodate different levels of language proficiency.”
My suggestion to those involved in planning and monitoring Chinese learning programs in Western countries: Get realistic about what can be accomplished in a high school classroom in Australia, England, Canada, the United States, etc. If you don’t have things like full immersion camps, study abroad programs, and all sorts of supports in place to keep the kids motivated, these programs are not going to be successful. Chinese is just too difficult for most students to learn well, if all they do is study it in a classroom.