Motivation and Mandarin

Posted on: 08/03/2019

Reading the Head’s blog last week on the value of learning modern languages, and on the great work going on at St. Helen’s College in this area, reminded me how times have changed – for the better!

At secondary school I studied French and German to ‘O’ Level. It was a struggle! I wasn’t particularly motivated, the teachers (none were native speakers) were extraordinarily unimaginative in their methods, and the focus was too much on grammar and textbooks and too little on conversation. We did visit Germany and Austria for a week but were left to our own devices (don’t ask!) and, apart from an idyllic lakeside lunch, my memories are mostly of Pepsi and chips, being bored, and the music of Simon and Garfunkel (the only cassette tape owned by the coach driver). Nevertheless, I achieved good ‘O’ Level grades, have reasonable conversational French and (somewhat to my surprise) was recently complimented on my German when helping a confused couple to understand a ferry timetable. I felt very proud.

I didn’t enjoy studying these languages and struggled terribly with learning vocabulary, so it came as something of a surprise to my family (and, if I am honest, to me) when I decided eighteen months ago that I was going to learn Mandarin. This was not a random choice – my son is married to a Singaporean of Chinese ethnicity, and my grandson Teddy is going to be bilingual in English and Mandarin.

Not really knowing where to start, I downloaded the app Hello Chinese and set to work on lesson 1. It is a really terrific learning tool which takes the complete beginner to a reasonable conversational standard, with each topic introducing new vocabulary, grammatical structures and common phrases. It uses a wide variety of excellent methods, including recording and playback, games, video, letter formation and flash cards and I can access it easily on my smart phone.

Shortly after starting work on the app, I was introduced to a Chinese class by a St. Helen’s College parent. The class was well ahead of me, which provided a spur to encourage me to work hard and catch up, and I am now about to enrol on a more advanced class at the School of Oriental and African Studies. My aim is to try to keep pace with my grandson who, at just 2 years and 4 months, already has a high degree of fluency in Mandarin. 

So why is my experience of learning Mandarin so much more positive today than that of my schoolboy French and German lessons? On reflection, I think that there are four reasons, all of which are interlinked.

Motivation In contrast to my schooldays, I am hugely motivated to learn Mandarin. I hear it spoken at home every day and want to understand and join in the conversations. I want it to be a shared experience with my grandson, and I want to get over my long-held belief that I am not good at language learning.

Knowing how to learn Over many years of learning, both informally and through academic courses, I have learned which learning strategies work best for me. I try to study a little each day, regularly consolidate my knowledge, ask myself and answer questions, keep a pack of flashcards in my pocket at all times and practise speaking as much as I can.

Quality of teaching The Hello Chinese app is an excellent, interactive and adaptive virtual teacher, but I also have a super class teacher at my Saturday Chinese class. Always warm and encouraging, she provides the right level of challenge for our (admittedly rather laid back) class, and, as a native speaker who has lived in China, immerses us not only in language but in the culture of the country.

Peer support My Chinese school co-students are remarkably friendly and supportive. The help which we give each other, and the fun which we have together, have created a sense of shared endeavour and mutual support.

Language learning is very popular at St. Helen’s College, and the children make excellent progress in their fluency in Spanish, French and Latin. This is not surprising, given that my four factors are all in place. They have a thirst for knowledge and are hugely motivated to succeed. Through discussions about metacognition, and reflecting on and discussing their progress with their teachers, they understand how best to learn. They have inspiring teachers who create wonderful lessons to challenge and support them in their learning and they support each other through the joy of learning and the shared enthusiasm which arises from it.

These four factors are interwoven, and the latter three all impact positively on the first, motivation. Motivation is critical to learning: without motivation learning is limited and dry, whereas the motivated learner is unstoppable.

Teaching is both a science and an art, and the artistry of the brilliant teacher, parent or grandparent has a lot to do with motivating children. I am very mindful of this with Teddy, and am so enjoying helping him to discover the wonderful world of knowledge.

Mr. Crehan