Being bilingual is common in Australia, it’s an advantage. But slowly, people seem to be losing that skill.
“I know that I definitely did not like going to Chinese school and I was always trying to make up excuses not to go…I remember cheating on dictation every week
Everyone in Australia normally speaks English anyway… I don’t think English is the official language, technically, but I think it’s an unofficial official language.”
That was Jane Smith*, a second-generation Chinese Australian. That was her struggle with the community language schools 8 years ago when she dropped out after 5 years of learning.
Now, students are still dropping out of community language schools, but with more complicated reasons. It has led to the shutdown of some schools, including the Sydney Chinese Language school at Bonnyrigg after over 30 years of operation.
“We don’t have enough students to run the school,” says Teresa Yi Wen Liao, the former principal of Sydney Chinese language.
According to the NSW Department of Education, a language school can run as long as they have 35 enrolled students.
Last term, there were less than 20 students at the Sydney Chinese School.
Liao says that other schools like Yi Xian Chinese school in south-west Sydney also face the same problem. They used to have over 1800 students and 15 centres in the early 2000s but now has been forced to close down 14 of them.
Large-scale Chinese schools like Datong Chinese school, Huaxia Chinese Culture school and Ming-Der Chinese school also encounter similar issues. They all acknowledge a trend of students dropping out, especially among the students in year 4, year 6 and year 11.
“Kids left to prepare OC and selective school test,” says Dr Zhang, the principal of Datong Chinese School.
Parents are hesitant about choosing between their kids getting good marks in school and keeping their mother tongue.
But what if the kids come back to the language school after stopping midway?
It sounds like an easier solution, but only reality is harder than it seems.
Most kids experience difficulty in fitting in the same class again, they easily forget about the things they have learned before and they get lost.
“It was very hard for him to come back after stopping for half a year,” says Hong Lian, her son is one of the kids that has stopped to prepare for the OC test and came back after.
It took them half a semester to settle in, and still, they had to drop a level at language school to make the transition easier. Lian says they have never stopped ever since.
“I think in my community of Chinese Australian, we do prioritize selective schools…I am glad that we didn’t stop for too long back then.”
The latest 2016 Census found that every 1 out of 5 Australians speaks a language other than English at home. Among the 300 languages spoken in Australian households, Mandarin is most spoken other than English by every 1 in 40 Australians.
With such a significant portion of the population speaking Chinese, can they maintain the culture tie without language schools?
According to the Ms Karen Law, the principal of Chinese Presbyterian Church Language school, learning Chinese relies heavily on the parents rather than the school. She says that speaking the language at home is the key.
And that’s what a lot of Chinese Australians do at home, they set up a rule to only speak their home language in the household.
“We speak Chinese at home because my mother- and father-in-law can’t speak English. Both of them [the two children] are pretty good at Chinese, but they are not willing to say it, it’s a big problem,” says Chun Fu, a parent who has enrolled his children in Datong Chinese school at the age of 5.
For Chun Fu’s family and many, speaking their home language narrows the generation gaps and reminds them of where they come from.
However, not all children are willing to do that after receiving their education in English. English is much easier for them. So when the kids don’t understand or don’t know how to respond, some parents would switch back to English instead.
A 14-year-old student, Yanyu Chen observes the trend among her friends. She says that most of her friends converse with their parents in English, even though their parents say things in Chinese.
“I really like Chinese…within my own peer groups, I am the only one that studies Chinese.”
Chen has been studying Chinese for 8 years now. She has changed from her previous language school to Datong Chinese school 3 years ago. She says that most kids at her age have dropped out of her previous school and the school have to put her into the same classroom with students of different levels.
For most parents that send their kids to language school, it’s a language environment they are looking for and some guaranteed hours of using the language.
Chen’s mother, Aidong Shan says that she has friends from her mommy groups now regret not sending their kids to language school, and it’s almost impossible to do so when the kids grow older. So now even their kids can speak Chinese in simple terms, it’s hard for them to engage in deep conversation.
“There is a language barrier between them.”
Some Chinese schools also take measures to help increase their retention rates. There are yoga classes for mom in Datong Chinese school; there are annual root-seeking camps back to China by Huaxia Chinese Culture school and there are reciting and public speaking competitions in Ming-Der Chinese school.
“We want our children to understand the culture and have close relationship with their family… and have more chances in the future,” says Bin Lin, the vice principal of Huaxia Chinese Culture school.
A common belief is shared among the community that Chinese is a very strong language. Knowing how to speak the language means more chances and can lead to more career paths and opportunities. Parents believe that their kids will have advantages among others.
In Huaxia Chinese Culture school, 25% of their students come from a non-Chinese background, consisting a variety of backgrounds from Italian, French, Greek, Indian and Korean.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says in a media release that community language schools connect young Australians with new cultures and the cultures of their ancestors.
A $10 million grant has been committed by the Morrison Government last March to support not-for-profit community language schools.
*name changed to protect the individual’s privacy
See the story behind here