From “bananas” to “eggs”: Mandarin becomes popular second language choice in Canada

April 23, 2009 11:44 pm 

by Xinhua writers Yang Shilong, Zhao Qing

OTTAWA, April 23 — Canadian-born Chinese (CBC) are sometimes called "bananas" (yellow on the outside but white on the inside), meaning they are Chinese but "westernized" to the extent such that they think, act, and talk like white people.

Inspired by the metaphorical use of "banana," 16-year-old Victoria Mancuso, when expressing her great passion for the Chinese language and culture, calls herself as an egg" (white on the outside but yellow on the inside).

Victoria, a grade 10 student of Toronto Harvadrgel College, is among the 12 finalists of a recent Chinese Proficiency Competition for high school students in Ontario, the first of its kind in the province which boasts more than 500,000 Chinese Canadians.

The event was hosted by the Toronto-based Chinese Culture & Education Society of Canada (CCESC) in partnership with the Office of the Chinese Language Council International of China (HANBAN).

The contestants, aged from 13-18, represented students from both public and private schools, with more than one-third from non- Chinese nationalities, the others of Chinese origin either being a native Mandarin speaker or non-native Mandarin speaker learning Chinese language. Accordingly, they were placed in three categories in the competition.

The finalists will have the opportunity to be nominated to attend the International Chinese Proficiency Competition for High School Students to be held at Chongqing, Southwestern China, in October 2009.

The just-concluded Toronto contest required all contestants to display their language skills, demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the Chinese culture by making a short speech, taking a knowledge quiz and staging a talent show at a specified time frame.

"It was a very challenging contest for the students who have just taken the Mandarin courses for one to three years," said CCESC President Yanhong Ren in a phone interview with Xinhua.

The fact that 12 out of 50 contestants made it to the podium shows an "encouraging improvement" of the Mandarin education in Ontario in recent years, said Ren, who has engaged in Chinese Language education for 13 years.

Mandarin has become an increasingly popular choice for primary and high school students seeking a second language as many schools in the Greater Toronto Areas began to set up the Chinese language programs since 2002, Ren said.

And there is a sharp surge in the numbers of students signing up to learn Mandarin after the Beijing Olympics, and many of them are fascinated by China's economic and cultural might showcased at the games, Ren said.

Victoria, who is of Italian origin, was first introduced to the oriental language and culture by her Chinese peers. At grade 9, when her school started to offer a Mandarin night course, she took it without hesitation.

"At first, it was just general interest and curiosity that motivated me. But, a few weeks into the course, I became hooked." Victoria told Xinhua.

She then started taking private lessons for learning Mandarin outside of school with a Chinese teacher, who taught her not only Mandarin, but Chinese culture and history, and life lessons.

"It was my new 'thing' and I was officially obsessed. Then, after about 6 months, it was my passion." Victoria said.

"It became something that I couldn't get enough of, even though I was spending more hours per week on Mandarin than any other course," she said, adding that now she is a well-known "egg" in her school.

Another winner Nicholas Deng, 15 years old, was a typical " banana" until he chose his heritage language as one of his option courses last year.

Nicholas' move was a happy surprise for his mother Lily Deng who believes Nicholas' mastery of Mandarin will give him an edge with his future career.

"I've never urged him to learn Chinese," Mrs. Deng said. "He was born here and his first language is English. Chinese is very hard for him to learn unless he himself takes the initiative."

"I think he was touched by the wonderful success of the Beijing Olympic Games," she said, adding that Nicholas clamored for Mandarin following his visit of his grandparents in Beijing last August.

It is no exaggeration that Mandarin mania is a national phenomenon in Canada.

The Edmonton Chinese Bilingual Education Association (ECBEA) was formed more than a quarter of a century ago to spearhead the adoption of a Mandarin Bilingual program in the public school system of the capital city of the oil-rich province of Alberta.

Today, almost 2,000 students from kindergarten to high school graduation in Edmonton are speaking Mandarin and learning to write Chinese in a unique and comprehensive program during regular school hours.

In the bilingual program initiated by a group of CBC parents in Edmonton in 1982, 50 percent of the instruction is in English and 50 percent in the target language.

No one could have predicted that it would become the fastest- growing second language program in any public school system, the ECBEA said on its website.

Early this year, the school board of Vancouver, Canada's Asia Pacific gateway, voted unanimously, in principle, to start Mandarin learning in at least one elementary school by September 2010.

Vancouver's decision followed similar steps taken by neighboring North Vancouver and Burnaby, which will both start Mandarin in some kindergartens over the next two years. (PNA/Xinhua) ALM/ebp

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