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Why learn Mandarin in the age of free online translation software?

Carmel Shu
Carmel Shu (1 post) Mandarin Teacher View Profile

" Every language is a vast pattern system, different from others, in which are culturally ordained the forms and categories by which the personality not only communicates but also analyzes nature, notices or neglects types of relationship and phenomena, channels his reasoning and builds the house of his consciousness."

Benjamin Lee Whorf, quoted in Ritchhart 2002: 121

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I am sure, that you have been impressed by the speed in which applications such as WeChat can translate text. Considering these powerful technologies, one may wonder why learning the host country language is still a necessity. Although these technologies are very useful for daily functional communication, they cannot replace the rich experience of language learning.

Studying and working at an international school like Nord Anglia International School Shanghai Pudong (NAIS), internationalism, international-mindedness and intercultural understanding are not just words but are powerful ideas we cultivate in our daily teaching and learning. International Mindedness supports all members of our school community to develop deep intercultural understanding with a view to creating a better and more peaceful world. To achieve this worthy ideal, language plays a vital role. The IB Diploma Programme literature states that “the ability to communicate in a variety of modes in more than one language is essential to the concept of an international education that promotes intercultural perspectives” (IBO,2014). Therefore, communicating only through online translation will not really promote intercultural perspectives nor help one imbibe culture. John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, who said in one of his TED talks that “if you want to imbibe the culture, you have to control to some degree the language that the culture happens to be conducted in. There's no other way.”  Learning a language is a window into knowing culture since the two are intimately entwined. Therefore, there seems to be broad consensus that, learning a new language will automatically develop our intercultural awareness and international mindedness.

As an international school, our community is multilingual and on any given day you will hear a rich tapestry of languages being spoken. As a school, we not only value each other’s native language but provide each learner with an opportunity to learn at least one more language. At our school we place great emphasis on learning Mandarin, our host country language, and deliver Mandarin to native and non-native students and help them to understand Chinese culture and traditions.

In my many years of working at NAIS Pudong as a language educator and language learner myself, I have experienced and seen how learning another language can improve one’s intercultural awareness and support one to become a better communicator not only in the target language you are learning but in various other aspects as well. However, learning another language can be challenging especially when you are just being a passive participant under old fashioned grammar driven pedagogy. My own experience as a student at a Chinese school, I learned English for eight years before I really started to speak it. Grammar drills and spelling tests were the order of the day and were somewhat uninspiring. As you can imagine, for this reason, I was not a very motivated languages learner at all. It was only when I started to speak the Language that I realised the real purpose which was a moment of great realisation! I remember it vividly; I was asked to coach my expat English teacher basketball, but despite the many years of didactic instruction I did not know how to communicate at all. Therefore, I spent the whole evening searching and learning all the terminologies such as lay-up, double dribble, even parabola before the lesson. Of course, I did not use even one fifth of this newly acquired vocabulary. However, the achievement of that communication was what I valued the most. This was also when I realised the real purpose of learning another language is not just to pass the language examinations as a school subject but to use it to open another window to the world.

At NAIS Pudong, an IB School, we deploy cutting edge international pedagogical principles. In this regard, language learning emphasises interpersonal and social transactional aspects. By focusing on meaning, rather than form, led me as an educator to a more communicative approach while at the same time drawing me into this big NAIS family.

I taught EAL for more than seven years before starting to teach Mandarin at NAIS Pudong. I was impressed and benefited from our school’s language policy which requires that we respect each other’s mother tongue. In addition, as a school, we place great importance on host country language learning and support the idea that every teacher is a language teacher. After witnessing how rapidly and successfully non-native speakers learned and developed their English skills, I decided to embrace our school motto to “be ambitious” and started to challenge myself to teach one of the most difficult language—Mandarin, my mother tongue using similar methodologies. I am confident that with the guidelines from our school linked to the pedagogical approaches to language learning, which promote critical thinking, will ensure that intercultural awareness and international mindedness at NAIS Pudong goes from strength to strength as an embedded facet of our school culture.