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The Importance of Learning Foreign Languages

26 januari 2015

Our Assistant Head for Global Languages, Fiona McConnon, answers our questions about the importance of leaning foreign languages and tips for learning Chinese whilst you’re living here in China.

  • Fiona McConnon, Assistant Head for Global Languages at BISS Puxi

How many languages do you speak and do you have a favourite? Which was most difficult to learn?

I speak only two foreign languages: French and Mandarin. I love both languages. I grew up learning French and visiting France for holidays and as part of my university studies. My mother and I used to speak and have fun in French, by having private conversations at home. French for me is a beautiful and poetic language and I enjoyed in particular the medieval romances and the tragedies of the seventeenth century dramatists such as Racine and Molière. I started learning Chinese having come to China to teach English and loved using it as means of communication and the beauty of the characters.

Both languages have their difficulties: French is grammatically more complex, but it has a number of cognates which make it easier for western learners to learn it. Mandarin is grammatically more accessible which means that you can express more complex ideas earlier on, but the characters and tones are a challenge! When I was studying in Beijing, I remember my supervisor correcting one mistake – when I asked him if I could ask (wèn问)a question, I was actually asking to kiss him (wĕn 吻), What a difference a tone makes!

Why is it important to learn foreign languages?

In this global world, I think it is critically important to learn other languages to really understand, respect and be part of other cultures and ultimately to play your part as a global citizen and in acting to secure a more peaceful and happy world. I think it allows for better reflection and evaluation of your own culture, values and language and allows you to develop other sides to your personality that are not part of you in your original culture.

It opens doors to experiencing an exciting range of activities and opportunities in your personal and professional life. Through learning Chinese, my professional and personal life is considerably richer. When working with vulnerable communities in China when I worked at the British Embassy, I felt that I was able to empathise and that they were able to feel the connection from the heart as we shared a common language.

You are passionate about learning and teaching Mandarin...and you’re very good at speaking it! How did you learn?

I started learning Chinese because I was living here and wanted to communicate with others and learn more about peoples’ lives and how they saw the world. This has always underpinned my approach to learning Chinese. I enjoy exploring similarities and differences and trying to understand and embrace some of the different concepts, which are an integral part of the language.

This can take a long time before it becomes part of you and the language you use and I am still learning a lot.

Our students have such a great opportunity to learn Chinese while they live here. How well do you think they can master the language in what can sometimes be quite a short period of time? What kind of goal should the students set in their learning?

Pupils have such a wonderful opportunity here to develop their speaking skills as they are able to use their functional language (in taxis, shopping and in restaurants) a lot. So within two years, they should be able to get around Shanghai well and converse quite well. In terms of learning the characters, I think learning the meaning of components of characters brings them alive. I also find drawing character pictures linked to the meaning or pronunciation helps with learning. For example, a student recently working on remembering the character for friend 朋友drew a picture of two bullies with a person protecting his friend. A fantastic and creative way of remembering the characters!

What can parents do to help their children learn a new language outside school?

Parents play a really important part in finding opportunities for their children to speak and practise their language, by taking them on trips, asking them to buy tickets, order in restaurants, watching cartoons and films and arranging play dates / opportunities for their children to socialise with other children in the other language.

How many languages do you suggest a student learns at the same time?

Educational evidence suggests a strong link between learning foreign languages and intelligence, as they help you grasp your mother tongue better and allow you to train the mind to think more openly. So, I suppose, the number of languages you study depends on how intelligent you want to be! I do not feel there is an optimum number, but the two foreign languages pupils learn at BISS Puxi provide them with plenty of challenges to develop their skills and their deeper thinking and we also have native language classes to help develop writing and reading in students’ native languages. Many pupils are also developing oral fluency in other languages at home or in the community.   

What is your advice for students learning a new language?

Enjoy and have fun with the language! Find ways of learning that help you overcome the challenges of each language and use all opportunities to develop and use your languages now and in the future. Have the confidence to use the languages you have learned and learn new ones!