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Young Germans tackle Chinese language
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German children attending a Chinese ink painting class at the Confucius Institute in Frankfurt. [Globaltimes.com]
German children attending a Chinese ink painting class at the Confucius Institute in Frankfurt. [Globaltimes.com]

As Chinese culture continues to grow in popularity across the world, so too does the desire to decipher intricate Chinese characters and master the age-old language. While Germany has long offered Mandarin courses at university, many primary and high school students are now taking on the challenge of studying Chinese.

"The lessons are interesting because our teacher explains to us what the characters mean and how they became what they are," said 13-year-old Justin Macpherson who lives near the German city of Wiesbaden. "Sometimes we also watch Chinese movies. The hardest thing is to write characters and listen to other people speak Mandarin," he added.

Germany is known for its excellent Sinologists, many of whom work as interpreters, translators, intercultural trainers and business consultants.

Most of the current batch of experts began learning Mandarin at universities in their late teens or early twenties. In the last few years, more and more primary school and high school students like Justin are learning the language.

Currently, more than 100 schools in Germany offer Mandarin classes to students as young as 10 years old. English has always been a common language in Germany and French and Latin are old favorites. Spanish is also becoming increasingly popular.

The fact that Mandarin has penetrated this European bastion is due in part to China’s increased global presence and the large amount of Chinese expatriates living on the continent.

Officially, more than 80,000 Chinese reside in Germany including 27,000 students, the largest foreign student group in the country.

Alongside language courses, Chinese food, art, fengshui, acupuncture, traditional medicine, music and martial arts are also enjoying a gain in popularity. German table-tennis players are extremely proud that their own Timo Böll can take on the very best of the Chinese players.

Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan have always held an international audience, now so do Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou. Chinese film festivals and music concerts abroad also draw a large Chinese and international audience.

However teaching German children Mandarin is no easy matter. Many schools offer the language as an after school activity with students from different classes and ages mixed in together.

"We all found that after a little while of enthusiastic character learning, Chinese classes slowed down and the students became less motivated by the increasing number of complicated characters," explained teacher and textbook author Antje Benedix.

"The students spent a very long time on simple questions and answers. They could not express what they really wanted to and after learning so much, they still could not read anything interesting," she added.

The problems have been compounded by the lack of teaching materials and qualified teachers. Many schools employ a Chinese national who is not necessarily a professional teacher. Young students also face little help from home, as most of their parents do not speak the language either.

The Association of Chinese Teachers in German Speaking Countries (Fachverband Chinesisch) is attempting to make learning Mandarin easier. They have organized workshops and seminars for teachers to exchange ideas and resources.

With the increase in student demand, new textbooks and learning materials are making it onto the market. Antje Benedix's Dong Bu Dong is specifically aimed at German pupils studying Mandarin and the book has become the official learning text for many secondary schools in the country.

"I separated the learning of characters from the training of dialogue. This strategy allows the pupils to start character learning a bit more systematically, which in itself enhances the possibilities of character training," Benedix explained.

"Using this method, more characters can be remembered in a shorter period of time. In addition to this, without the burden of needing to read and write every single character in a dialogue text, which does not make much sense anyway, the pupils are able to get on to more interesting subjects of discussion much earlier than before."

She added that young students need to be presented with learning in a fun and interactive way. She encourages the use of theater, songs, games, films, competitions, picture shows and presentations for parents and pupils alike.

"Of course, having the possibility to travel to China is one of the most attractive aims for learning the language, this need highly motivates teachers too," Benedix said.

Many German students have taken field trips to China to discover traditions and culture first hand. They have also met with Chinese school students of their own age to find out what it would be like to live in China.

"I would like to go to China one day, but only for vacation," Justin said. While many schools in Germany offer Mandarin as an extra-curricula activity, others are including courses as part of everyday schooling.

In Germany's southern states of Bavaria and Bayern Württemberg, some schools have incorporated Mandarin into their curriculum and are offering it as an Oberstufe subject – a course to be taken at a pre-university level.

Apart from the obvious advantages of opening doors both socially and professionally, learning a foreign language also creates firm bonds between students. Many of Benedix's groups of pupils, who began learning Mandarin as children many years ago, have regular class reunions.

Quite a few are now studying Chinese at an advanced level at university or have taken on degrees such as Asian Business Management or social studies.

"It is always a pleasure to be invited to their gatherings, seeing their progress and success is the most wonderful gift for me as their teacher," Benedix said.

(Globaltimes.com August 13, 2009)

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