Culture Education MDIA2003_19 MDIA2003_19_P2 Tues3.30 (2019)

Cultures under threat: why language schools are struggling to survive

Halls once bursting with children are now empty as parents send their children elsewhere for their weekend learning. Language schools have stood their ground for decades in Australia but must now close due to a shortage of students, creating a barrier than extends beyond the confines of tradition and family life.

Enrolment figures are dwindling at Datong Chinese School as students spend their weekends elsewhere.

“How do you say ‘election’ in Cantonese again, Mum?” a young girl asks in English.

The 18-year-old student of Chinese and Bulgarian heritages, who wishes to remain anonymous, knows what she wants to say – she’d attended her local community language school for five years as a child and learnt to speak with eloquence and articulation. But now, nearly a decade after, she stutters. The pronunciation of the word comes in vague gaps in her mind but they refuse to escape her lips.

The young girl shares her experiences with many second and third generation Australian migrants who struggle to speak their native language at home, creating a communicative barrier between their families and themselves.

“Everyone in Australia normally speaks English anyway, so when I speak to my friends, I don’t have a reason to speak to them in Cantonese,” she said.

While Saturday language schools have long been the destination for those wanting to learn their language and gain a more profound understanding of their culture, time constraints and push towards other forms of weekend education have placed pressure on schools to increase their enrolment figures or risk closing down.

A language school must have more than 35 students enrolled for it to operate under the NSW Department of Education. But after over thirty years of business, Bonnyrigg Chinese Mandarin School in Sydney’s south-west fell below this threshold in early March and was forced to close down after receiving just 20 enrolments.

“The parents prioritise maths and English, or music and sports,” former Principal of Bonnyrigg Chinese School Teresa Yi Wen Liao said.

 “The second generation easily lose their mother tongue. I have a lot of students whose parents… force them to come to Chinese school because they have to keep the language. That’s why it’s very hard to teach them.”

The school had over 400 students enrolled during its peak in 1998, but Liao says a lack of interest in learning the language was the main reason for its closure.

“We want to teach the kids in Chinese but we have to explain it in English,” Liao said. “It’s not a good way but we had no choice.”

Ming-Der Chinese School, which has four campuses situated in government schools across Sydney’s south-west, has been more fortunate, but say that their enrolment figures have dropped by nearly 40 per cent over the past six years due to dwindling interests in studying the language.

Principal Hung Banh says that students may “lose their roots” if they do not continue with their language studies.

Banh says that students may “lose their roots” and “forget where they came from” if they choose to abandon their home language altogether, but has turned to innovative methods of teaching such as using games and online learning platforms to reinforce class content and facilitate a fun and welcoming learning environment.

“If the family cannot communicate to each other, how can the meld together?” Banh said.

Huaxia Chinese Culture School in Sydney’s south has maintained relatively stable enrolment in recent years, which they credit to their qualified teachers and equal emphasis on studying the language and the culture. However, Vice Principal Bin Lin says that children need to be motivated to “study not only for the marks in school”, and that “learning a second language is not only about the language itself, but also the different world views” it provides.

“It’s about discussing and engaging students with things they know already and slowly leading to the new concepts they will be learning that day,” he said.

Lin established his school in 2002 to foster a greater sense of Chinese culture in his son, who refused to be considered ‘Chinese’. He centres his lessons on “self-leading and experience”, including story-telling and peer-led class discussions to provide students with an interactive learning environment and foster a greater sense of cultural identity.

“We want our children to understand the culture and have a close relationship with their family,” he said.

Infographic: the number of people speaking Chinese languages have sky-rocketed in the last 20 years.
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics

Research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Census of Population of Housing in 2016 reveals that the number of Australians speaking Chinese languages at home have quadrupled in the past 30 years. Despite efforts made by Chinese schools to continue this trend, many Chinese-Australians like the young girl still struggle to speak the language and are dissuaded by the idea of returning back to language studies.

“I know that I definitely did not like going to Chinese school and I was always trying to make up excuses not to go,” she said.

“There’s no reason for me to speak Chinese, and that would actually impact [my ability to communicate with my friends] if I were to try speak in Chinese, because they wouldn’t know how to reply.”


Hong Lian, a teacher at Datong Chinese School, said that his son stopped learning Chinese for half a year to prepare the OC test but resisted returning as he dropped to the grade below upon returning due to his trouble adjusting to the new content.

“Even though my son is [now] in Year 7, he is learning Year 5 Chinese,” he said.

“The classmates are not his age and they don’t have common things to talk about.”

Aidon Shang also sends his 14-year-old daughter to the school and says that he did not stop her language studies to study for the selective test out of fear that she would lose the language.

“Our English is not very good and if our kids don’t learn Chinese, it will be very hard for us to communicate,” Shang said.

“They can’t really share what they think and they don’t know how to communicate. It’s a very awkward situation.”

Chun Fu enrolled her children at Datong five years ago to ensure that they could speak with their grandparents. However, she says that children “don’t want to converse in Chinese with their peers” out of embarrassment, reinforcing the language divide between the generations.

Despite the time and effort needed to learn and practice Chinese, Liao says that it is a “very strong language” and that students would “have more priority” over others when entering the work-force.

“China is a rising county, so those [who can speak Chinese are in] big demand,” she said.

“Since they’re opening the gates, a lot of foreign people are now coming in. Chinese exist all around the world.”

“Beg your parents to speak Mandarin with you, no matter if it’s Teochew or Cantonese. You have to keep it and practice it.”