Role switch turns student into teacher of Mandarin language

Issue: Volume 97, Number 17

Posted: 24 September 2018
Reference #: 1H9kyb

An Auckland teacher learning Mandarin at a school where almost all the children are bilingual, and most are from Asian families, believes all teachers should be acquiring a second language.

"Ni hao” rings out often every morning as students are welcomed when they arrive at Newmarket Primary in central Auckland. For three-quarters of students, English is their second or third language. Only 12 per cent are European. All students are greeted by teachers and other staff in the children’s own mother tongue, and one in four students are from Chinese families.

The school also supports students’ first languages through agentic learning, and encourages them to use their native tongue in classes and bring their culture to school.

“To be a successful learner in English, it is essential to maintain your first language,” says ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher Sonya van Schaijik.

Sonya has been learning Mandarin for two years and believes New Zealand schools, including teachers, should do more to prepare for second language acquisition.

“We cannot be monolingual anymore. If you are a language teacher, you should be a language learner too. Ideally, teachers should be picking up the baton with Mandarin, as it is an international language.”

Once a week, Sonya is tutored in Mandarin by a 10 year old student at the school, Melissa, whose family is Chinese. Sonya says, “Melissa is a conscientious teacher – she tells me I’m not a very good student because I don’t do my homework!”.

Different learning styles

Many important events of Chinese life and culture are incorporated into everyday studies, such as making moon cakes for the moon cake festival.

“All teachers, and in fact everyone involved in a school, should know what red envelopes are, why you might sample different Chinese dishes, and also understand the different learning styles children will bring from their family and cultural background,” says Sonya.

Eleven year old student Stephanie says the students have a lot of fun relating to their Chinese cultural studies, and fellow student J.C. (Jia Cheng), says, “It’s best to have two languages equal, because when I go to China I can speak Mandarin and communicate with people easily, and here in New Zealand I can talk to everyone in English.”

The school is on the cutting edge of substantial demographic change in the city. Forty per cent of Auckland residents were not born in this country, and Newmarket and surrounding areas have a high population of Asian migrant families.

One third of the school’s students are funded for ESOL. Most children at some stage receive support for their English language learning.

Cognitive benefits of being bilingual

Sonya says, “Most of our Chinese students are already fluent and can read and write in Chinese – therefore they just need to transfer those academic skills to their learning in English. The process of learning in two languages takes time but the bilingual learner benefits cognitively from the process, especially if they can already read and write in their first language.”

All the school’s students learn Mandarin and the school has recently appointed a Chinese teacher who is a qualified teacher and a native Mandarin speaker, to teach Mandarin. Lessons are targeted so that students can understand and use very simple phrases, meet basic needs for communication and possess the ability to further their Chinese language studies.

The students’ parents also support first language maintenance, and a group of parents come together to provide after-school classes for language support and practice. The school has also had Mandarin Language Assistants from China through the Confucius Programme to help with teaching the language and culture.

“We cannot be monolingual anymore. If you are a language teacher, you should be a language learner too.” 

Newmarket School ESOL teacher, Sonja Schaijik.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:08 am, 24 September 2018

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