“Dui bu qi wo de zhong wen bu hao.”
(I’m sorry, my Chinese is not good.)
One of the most frequently discussed topics in the Chinoy community is about fluency in Mandarin, or our lack of it. As said by Wilson Sy Flores in his CHiNOY TV interview, there was a push in the 1970s to limit Chinese education in Philippine schools. This led to many of today’s Chinoys having a “very shallow sense of Mandarin.”
As the demand for Mandarin speakers in the job market increases, it is perhaps time to turn the tide and start learning the second most spoken language in the world!
In this article, we’ll explore some good reasons to learn the language. We will also explore a few reasons why we didn’t become fluent, as Chinoy students in Chinese schools – starting with the latter.
Why Chinoys did not learn Mandarin
Like many Chinoys, I was one of the students who did the bare minimum in Chinese class. As long as I memorized the poems, wrote essays with easy words, and got high grades in the quizzes, it was fine. But I did not take the time to really learn the language or integrate it into my life.
After High School, many Chinoys stop speaking Mandarin altogether and fall out of practice. That leads us to reason number one:
1. Lack of use in conversation
In the Philippines, it’s a reality for many Chinoys that our most spoken languages/dialects are English, Tagalog, and Hokkien. Most of us can relate to only using Mandarin in formal situations, like talking to grandparents and teachers or giving a speech at a ceremony.
When talking with friends, we use English or Tagalog. When talking with family, we use either of the two mixed with Hokkien. Some families abandon the Hokkien altogether and simply go with the former two!
As Chinoys, it is almost required for us to be trilingual. Because it is difficult to add another language to the plate, we put more effort into the languages that we have to learn for use in daily life. For example, some of the “Englishero/Englishera” kids eventually learn Tagalog, but even fewer become fluent in Mandarin.
This is the reason the fluent kids in class are usually from China or Taiwan! That, or they had a very traditional upbringing.
2. Language and Generational Gaps between students and teachers
If you still remember your Chinese classes in High School, you’ll probably remember that they were very chaotic. Many students disrespect their Chinese teachers and even give them mean nicknames because of the lack of understanding between the two parties.
It is important that both the instructor and the students have a common language in order to establish camaraderie and teach more effectively. Unfortunately, this was not the case in many Chinese schools in the late 2000s and 2010s.
“Aside from the language barrier, there was also a generational gap.” Says Valerie, a Chinoy college student who notes that most Chinese teachers back then were already senior citizens. “So it was hard for us to relate to them.”
3. Kids and teens do not see long term
Anyone under eighteen is a child in the eyes of the law, and most do tend to think that way. As a result, it’s difficult to think about long-term decisions such as employment when one is still in High School and has four years (i.e. forever) of college ahead of them.
At an age where having fun and making friends is more important, most young Chinoys will put off learning Chinese until after their turbulent teenage years. By then, they are mature enough to see the benefits of Mandarin but without the learning capacity of the formative years.
Reasons for Chinoys to learn Mandarin
Now for the next half of the article! Here are three great reasons to Learn Mandarin:
1. Mandarin speakers are in demand
The simple truth is that many companies nowadays are looking for Chinese speakers to fill several key positions in their organization: from management trainees to managers, interpreters, marketing specialists, and more!
The reasons for this are China’s economic growth, large population, and the desire for corporations to enter the Chinese market.
As a Chinoy with Elementary level Mandarin, I often leave my interviewers puzzled when I admit that I am not fluent.
“But aren’t you Chinese? And didn’t you graduate with a minor in Chinese studies?” They tend to say.
Whenever it happens, I feel my ancestors shaking their heads in disappointment.
To add salt to the wound, there were a few companies that reached out to me with great opportunities! However, I had to turn them down due to my lack of business level Mandarin competency. If my High School self knew about this, he would have paid more attention in Chinese class and spent more time in conversation with Chinese teachers.
2. Your Formative years are the best years to become Fluent
It is never too late to learn a new language. However, science says that after the age of eighteen, one’s ability to learn a new language declines sharply. Therefore, it is a good time to learn and become fluent in Mandarin while you’re still sitting in your High School classroom! The absolute best time is to start by the age of ten.
3. Chinese teachers are fluent speakers you can hone your skills with
Whether they were born and raised in the Philippines, China, or Taiwan; majority of Chinese teachers in Chinese School grew up as native Chinese speakers. Therefore, they are a golden opportunity to practice speaking Mandarin! From Chinese teachers, you will get amazing idioms and expressions, as well as funny slang words actually used in China.
The writer notes that one of the students’ favorite Chinese teachers was a young man from Taiwan who spoke a little English, but was very eager to help students with conversational Mandarin. Aside from his ability to easily control the class, he also told interesting stories, gave conversation tips, and gifted Hi-Chew to students who participated in recitation.
This was in contrast to the teachers who simply gave exams and whiteboard sessions.
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