Back to skool – to learn Chinese

by Terence MacNamee

Journalist Chuck Chiang had a recent article in the Vancouver Sun to mark the beginning of the new school year. The article is about the pros and cons of learning Chinese in Vancouver – of all places. It seems numerous parents and business groups have been lobbying for it in the public school system and say it should be taught more. The only reason given, by the way, is that it helps you make money and be competitive.

The people doing the lobbying are mainly Chinese-Canadian, also by the way. One non-Chinese-Canadian, a former diplomat named Jimmy Mitchell who actually learned Chinese on a posting and has been making a career of it ever since, remarks that there are lots of Chinese speakers in Vancouver but they’re all Chinese. He thinks white guys should be learning it too. Fat chance, I thought.

When I was working with the BC Ministry of Education in the 1980s, we were developing a new languages curriculum. This was triggered by the introduction of Chinese and Japanese as optional subjects in the public schools. I for one told the bureaucrats and educators you might as well focus on offering Chinese as a heritage language (that is, one taught to children of immigrant speakers of that language). They reacted with righteous horror, saying no, public school subjects have to be for everybody. But the bottom line was, and is: no ordinary English Canadian kid is going to learn Chinese, or at least stick at it once the novelty has worn off. If they can’t be bothered to learn French – the country’s other official language, and relatively easy to learn for English speakers – they’re not going to learn Chinese with its tones and artistic writing system.

Another thing is that, in these debates, people confuse teaching with learning. If you ask whether kids are learning languages, educators come out with impressive statistics like “we have so many students enrolled in so many programs”. That’s not what I asked. I asked if the kids were learning the languages – namely, whether they know anything at the end of the program, and have something to apply it to. English-Canadian kids have been dutifully enrolled in French courses for years, and at the end they can’t say a word. Even kids in French immersion programs, who actually do learn French, forget it afterwards due to lack of practice.

Anyway, the basic problem is not Chinese – it’s English. English Canadian society is deeply convinced that no language is necessary but English, and no language should be spoken but English, and anyone who speaks any other language besides English is, like, weird. Young people have learned this from their parents; it gets passed on from previous generations. This is why young English Canadians (like young Americans) can’t be bothered to learn languages.

So if we want to have English Canada able to speak Chinese to China, guess who will be doing it? Chinese-Canadians. Howls of righteous horror, anyone? Well, look on the bright side. Young Chinese Canadians will no longer need to soul-search and ask themselves “what can I do for my (adopted) country?” Their work is already cut out for them – for generations to come.