Mandarin On the Curriculum

Posted by David Fielden, Economic Development Project Officer , Hauraki District Council on 02/04/2014

mandarin teacher

Where would you be if you heard excited greetings of “Hello, teacher!” in Mandarin?

Chances are, in a classroom at Karangahake, Paeroa, Netherton or Hikutaia – where Guo Xiaoshuai is helping primary and secondary students to learn Mandarin and understand Chinese culture.

Xiaoshuai, known to her local students as Selina, has swapped her job teaching English to Beijing teenagers for a one-year contract in the Ohinemuri Schools cluster. She’s one of 70 Mandarin learning assistants working in New Zealand as part of a Chinese Government-funded initiative set up in 2010 under the bilateral Fair Trade Agreement, to promote understanding and raise the quality of Chinese education in Kiwi schools.

The programme is administered through Hanban – the Chinese Language Council International – and is managed in New Zealand by the Confucious Institute which has offices at Auckland, Victoria and Canterbury Universities.

While most of the learning assistants are based at urban schools, a Hauraki District Council economic development initiative resulted in Selina being posted to Paeroa, where she is hosted with a local teacher.

“At first I was upset not to be in Auckland; that instead I would be teaching in eight schools here,” she says. “But after two weeks, I was so excited. I’m very lucky to be here. Everyone is so friendly and welcoming.”

In contrast to the quiet, structured classes in which Selina has spent the past 8½ years since completing an English degree at Harbin Normal University, New Zealand students have much more freedom to move around and express themselves, she says. “Another challenge is that this is my first time teaching young children. And I love them.”

In fact Selina now hopes that when she returns to Beijing she can teach primary pupils there – especially as her own son is six, the age at which Chinese children start school.

“I think the younger you are, the easier it is to learn another language. Five and six-year-olds only have a limited attention focus and we have lots of games, but Year 5 and 6 students learn a lot and are very outgoing. Some can already have a dialogue in Mandarin, and it’s wonderful when they call out and greet me on the street.”

The most common questions Selina gets from Kiwi kids are “How old are you?” (31) and “How do I write my name in Mandarin?” There’s a lot of interest, too, in multi-storey Chinese apartment houses, the size of Selina’s school (2000 students) and whether she knows all the children’s names (No).

At 40-pupil Karangahake School, 10-year-old Hamish Pennell says Selina’s photos of China are “amazing”, and he’d like to travel there. Evita Luckman, also 10, says having the chance to learn Mandarin is cool. “It’s quite exciting, especially writing some Chinese characters. In English, we don’t have to worry about drawing the lines in a certain order.” Naomi Laslett, aged 9, enjoys the humour in Selina’s lessons.

Principal John Doran is delighted to have Selina teaching at Karangahake, where her bubbly personality makes her a perfect fit. He says the cultural exchange is “a great opportunity for the future”. Teachers are learning along with students, and the school is looking into everyday ways to build on the once-a-week lessons.

Councillor Toby Adams, Chairman of the Economic Development Sub-committee, says teaching languages like Mandarin to Hauraki students is a key component of Council’s new approach to economic development. “This is the language of one of our key 21st century trading partners and we are delighted that the Ohinemuri school cluster saw the benefits and decided to be involved. With the recent attraction of a Chinese company to Hauraki, students who learn Mandarin will enhance their job prospects both here and on the international stage”, said Councillor Adams.

Council’s Economic Development Officer stated “knowledge of Mandarin and of Chinese culture is becoming increasingly important in New Zealand, with trade links growing between the two countries, and China being our biggest export market. The Hauraki District is already benefiting from the relationship, with a Chinese company due to open an export ice cream company in Kerepehi later this year”.