As New Zealand Chinese Language Week begins, Lee Seabrook-Suckling speaks with two Mandarin superstars on learning (and using) the language.
In China, many people learn both the English language and about Western cultures. It’s only right that we do the same, says Victoria University student and Mandarin superstar Hannah Prior.
Prior speaks four languages, English, Mandarin, Spanish, and French. “Languages are my passion. But while in China everyone learns English, that’s not reflected in English-speaking countries. There’s an imbalance. Making an effort to learn Mandarin can help correct that.”
Ella Haszard, another Mandarin superstar and student at Wellington Girls’ College, says Chinese become a huge part her. “It has taken over my life,” she says. “I watch TV shows in Chinese. I write Chinese characters all over my schoolbooks. I like speaking Chinese with my friends, playing with apps on my phone... I love it.”
For New Zealand Chinese Language Week, which begins on 20 September, Mandarin superstars like Prior and Haszard are sending a message across the country: Chinese language isn’t as hard to learn as you think it is.
“Chinese is misunderstood,” Haszard explains. “Because the alphabet is different, people are afraid of it. But the grammar is much easier than learning other languages. In French you will have seven difference tenses [for past, present, future tenses, and so on] and conjugations but Chinese is just the characters and the date. You spend a lot of time learning grammar, and not much time learning vocabulary. Chinese ends up being the opposite. You just go for it and it’s not that tedious.”
Both Mandarin superstars take pride in being able to read and write in a non-Latin alphabet. “The characters are actually really easy and especially these days with computers, it’s easier to communicate,” says Haszard. “Learning a new language will always be hard, but the new alphabet challenge of Chinese really isn’t much of a barrier.”
What’s more, learning a language like Chinese for an English native speaker comes with additional cognitive benefits than learning, for example, a romantic language like French or Italian. According to the Indian English-language news outlet Scroll, this can be significant for children.
“Learning a completely different language with a writing system that is nothing like anything we have... would bring about a number of cognitive benefits such as increasing memory power, sharpening the mind and even buffering the brain against aging, journalist Ajay Kamalakaran wrote. “In other words, learning a different and unfamiliar language helps with the brain development of children and keeps aging adult brains function better.”
Such a view is held by New Zealand Chinese Language Week Trust chair Jo Coughlan.
"Learning a language with a different alphabet - and in respect of Mandarin, a whole extra tonal variation dimension that English just doesn't have - stretches the mind in whole new ways. And that can only be good for you," she says.
"But the most important thing about learning another language, any language, is that it helps you communicate. You can talk with other people in that language.
"They get to hear you and your thoughts in the language that they are most comfortable in, and that's a powerful feeling - to be recognised and spoken to in your own language. Whether you want to do business together, order dumplings with your beer, or just tell someone about something, language is about those people-to-people links."
Liwei Wang is the Chinese teacher at Wellington Girls’ College, and has been there since 2001. “We think Chinese is really important to learn because New Zealand and China are becoming more and more integrated,” Wang says. “There are lots of Chinese people coming to New Zealand and lots of opportunities for New Zealanders to go to China [in a post-Covid future, at least] if they are able to speak the language.
“As people know, Chinese is a valuable language to learn in 2020 and in the future, of course! Because it is great to learn about the culture and lifestyle of people living in a different part of the world.”
Students find that Chinese isn’t too difficult “as long as they make sure to put time into study”, Wang adds. “This language is a good challenge for a non-native speaker. It will definitely benefit English native speakers as they will be able to connect with more people via the language and skills they learn at school.”
Prior was in China on a three-month Prime Minister’s Scholarship for Asia in early 2020. It was unfortunately cut to two months (she had to return home owing to Covid-19), but she and nine others made the most of their time in Shanghai. “It showed me the opportunities in the Chinese market in terms of diplomacy and business,” she says. Though she was not staying with a host family – she was instead in a university dorm and didn’t have the “full emersion experience” of living in a Chinese household – Prior received a warm initiation in the country. “Chinese hospitality is part of the culture. There’s a strong desire to welcome people in for meals and to share.”
Back in New Zealand, Prior works at a local market. She is confident in speaking in Chinese to customers when she picks up Mandarin words from their conversations. “When I speak in Chinese it’s very unexpected,” she says. “But people are so receptive. They think it’s great to see more Westerners speaking.”
During New Zealand Chinese Language Week, every Kiwi should make an effort to learn a little bit of the language. It could benefit you in the workplace, after all. “Knowing a little bit of Mandarin is better than not knowing any,” Prior adds. “Even if you can just say ‘ni hao’. It will help you in a professional context.”
- Asia Media Centre