Thursday, 2 October 2008

Chinese teaching at Meilahden (reflections)

I can see some boards with Chinese mooncakes drawings (one of UK national flag), Great Wall photo and description, as well as colour filling of pictures of Sun Wu Kong (of the Journey to the West), and moon, stars and sun in pictures with Chinese words. This should give you a flavour of how Finnish schools reinforce the learning of languages through different activities and media. Learning a language need not be limited to reading books and practising word drills, particularly for younger children.

This is the first year that Meilahden ala-aste, in fact the first Finnish school, that offers a bilingual education in Chinese, and school teaching in Chinese. Basically Chinese is taught at two levels - as a first language for native speakers, and as a second language for interested Finnish students. I did not observe the first language classes, but only the second language one, which you can find here: Chinese class grade 1.

A very strong first impression I got was that students were very eager to use what they have learnt, without fear at all in speaking Chinese. Just as I was walking along the corridor, I had been greeted by a few Finnish students with ‘Ni hao’ (Hello in Chinese).

The focus is immersion, inspiring an interest and emphasis on speaking.

They start by initiating conversations, singing and playing games with students in Chinese, rather than starting with han yu pin yin or learning characters. They start learning by being immersed in the language as used in daily life. They learn by imitation and talking in the language. They also begin by recognising the words, without any form of drills like we did when we were young. They don’t learn the pronunciation system in grade one because the school fears the students will confuse that with the Finnish alphabet and sound system. Writing the characters can obviously be a frustrating experience as well when kids start learning the language.

This is an encouraging development because there is in fact a growing Chinese community in Helsinki. I heard that there are about 3000 Chinese living in the city. (I've been able to see a few hundreds in a Mid-Autumn celebration party.) These overseas Chinese do have a need to keep up their Chinese, and I am glad that their native tongue is increasingly respected by the Finnish education system.

Under Section 12(2) of the Basic Education Act 628/1998, 'as mother tongue, the pupil may also be taught some language which is the pupil's native language.'

'may' can suggest it is optional for the pupil to be taught their native language, which in turn suggests an obligation on the part of the school to provide this facility. However, there are practical constraints in a city like Helsinki with lots of immigrants from different native languages. As shown by this school, the law is not just empty slogan, but really put into practice where possible.

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