Tuesday 18 November 2014

'Your Mandarin is better than mine'

Learn Chinese from these Caucasians
The Sunday Times, 16 Nov 2014

When American Pauli Haakenson speaks in Mandarin to taxi drivers and neighbours at the supermarket, some will switch to English halfway through the conversation and say: "Your Mandarin is better than mine."

No surprise. After all, the 48-year-old teaches Chinese at the Singapore American School.

While a spokesman for the Ministry of Education says its records show no Caucasians are teaching mother tongue languages in its schools, a check with 14 international schools, universities and institutes found that Mr Haakenson is among six Caucasian educators here with a good command of Chinese.

While SundayLife! could not find Caucasians who have mastered Malay or Tamil well enough to teach these languages, a handful have certified proficiency in written or spoken Chinese, and use the language daily in a professional setting.

These Westerners previously lived in Chinese-speaking places such as China, Taiwan or Hong Kong, and most have Mandarin-speaking spouses. At least two teach Chinese here.

Australian Sally Lean, 43, for example, is a high school teacher at the Singapore American School. She teaches Chinese to students aged 14 to 18, who come from countries such as India, South Korea and the United States.

The children are taught to read passages, write compositions and tell stories in the language, among other skills.

Last month, Ms Lean was certified to have an "advanced high" level of speaking proficiency by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. The organisation aims to improve and expand the teaching and learning of all languages.

Says Ms Lean: "Some of my friends and colleagues joke that I'm an 'egg' - white on the outside but yellow on the inside.

"I started learning Chinese in an Australian school when I was 12 and have loved it from the very first day.

"Chinese lets me learn more about China, a rising global power whose future is inextricably linked to the future of our world."

Her colleague, Mr Haakenson, is an elementary Chinese teacher who passed Level Five of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi two years ago.

His results in the international standardised exam, which tests and rates Chinese language proficiency, prove he has a vocabulary of at least 2,500 Chinese characters.

He can also read Chinese newspapers and magazines, understand Chinese films and plays, as well as give a full-length speech in Mandarin.

Mr Haakenson, whose wife is Taiwanese, has two children, aged 13 and 10, and the family speaks English and Mandarin at home.

"At work, I teach and conduct meetings in Mandarin. So my whole day is spent immersed in the language," he says.

Associate Professor John Donaldson, 44, who teaches political science at the Singapore Management University, says his interest in Chinese culture grew after a six-month study programme to Beijing and Nanjing in 1990.

The American, who can speak fluent Mandarin and has a degree in Chinese language and literature from Washington University, says: "During that trip, I became very interested in Chinese society - how they lived, worked and how different they are from Western society."

For example, he points out that extended families in China tend to live together. "As a result, elderly family members are not as isolated and feel lonely less often compared to those in the West. When it comes to issues like childcare, Chinese families also have more resources to draw upon," he notes.

"I'm fascinating by such aspects of Chinese society, which differ greatly from those in the West."

Mr Tim Hudson, an Australian who taught Chinese to secondary students in Australia, China and Singapore for more than 15 years, says being proficient in Chinese has been "life-changing" in both his career and personal life.

The 46-year-old, who heads the department for English as an additional language at the Australian International School here, says: "It allowed me to interact with and immerse myself in the local culture in Shanghai while I was teaching there."

He taught Chinese, English, mathematics and science in the Chinese city during the 1990s.

"Through Chinese, I learnt the importance of 'guanxi' or connections, without which success would be difficult to achieve for the average Joe in China," he adds.

He also met his wife in China. They have been married for 20 years and have a teenage son.

Says Mr Hudson: "We make sure our son is also exposed to Chinese by teaching it to him at home.

"Chinese has already expanded his horizons, and I hope it continues to do so throughout his life, just like it has done for me."

Fascinated by all things Chinese
Professor Kenneth Dean is the first non-Chinese to head the Chinese studies department at NUS
By Benson Ang, The Sunday Times, 16 Nov 2014

He may be Caucasian but Professor Kenneth Dean is an expert on Chinese literature and culture.

In fact, he will head the department of Chinese studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS) in January - the first non-Chinese to hold this position since the department was established in 1953.

The 58-year-old holds dual American- Canadian citizenship and has a degree in Chinese studies from Brown University and a PhD in Asian languages from Stanford University.

He speaks Mandarin, English and French fluently, as well as some Hokkien, German and Japanese.

Prof Dean has taught graduate level courses in Mandarin and written academic articles in Chinese.

Throughout his academic career, he has studied numerous aspects of Chinese literature, culture and philosophy, including Tang dynasty poetry, stories and essays by 20th-century Chinese writer Lu Xun, fengshui, Chinese medicine and Buddhist and Taoist texts.

He credits his proficiency in the language to spending over 25 years in Mandarin-speaking environments - China, Taiwan and Hong Kong - and his life-long interest in Chinese culture.

"I have a great respect for Chinese culture - its key values of courtesy and humaneness, its strong endorsement of virtuous conduct and its conviction that people can always improve themselves," he says.

"Studying new topics and documents in Chinese has always helped keep my passion for the language alive. I have also had many wonderful friends and teachers who helped me learn Chinese."

Since 2006, he has been a visiting professor at NUS teaching courses on Chinese religion and South-east Asian Chinese temples.

About three months ago, Prof Dean accepted NUS' offer to head the department, which he has always held in high regard.

"I am very honoured and excited to be moving to Singapore to take up this new position," he says.

An NUS spokesman says Prof Dean was chosen because he has an outstanding reputation in the field of Chinese religions, and is one of the world's leading scholars in Chinese popular religion.

Says the spokesman: "He will strengthen the department's research on the linkages between South-east Asia and China, as well as the Ming and Qing dynasties in China, which are two of the department's research foci."

Adds Associate Professor Su Jui-Lung, 52, the department's current acting head: "Professor Dean's Chinese is excellent. I can talk to him in Mandarin about everything.

"He is a researcher at the cutting edge of Chinese religions, and his books on popular religion in Fujian province have become classic studies in the field."

The elder of two sons, Prof Dean was born in Holland to two American diplomats.

At the age of six months, he was taken to Taiwan, where his father was stationed for about eight years, on and off.

In his formative years, Prof Dean learnt Mandarin from his parents, who are fluent in the language, and Hokkien from the two Taiwanese maids serving his family.

"Before I turned one year old, I was speaking a mix of Hokkien, Mandarin and English."

As a child, he recalls being fascinated by Chinese temples in Taiwan and the massive celebrations held in them.

"There'd be fireworks exploding, clouds of incense drifting around and colourful banners and costumes all around the temple - my senses were overwhelmed," says Prof Dean, who has also lived in China and Hong Kong.

"Yet, among all the chaos, I could sense some sort of order. The experience was so powerful, I sometimes still dream about these celebrations."

As he grew older, so did his interest in all things Chinese.

The biggest obstacle to mastering the language is a lack of an "immersive linguistic environment", he notes.

"Some Singaporeans speak in a mixture of English and Mandarin, but this can be problematic because it prevents them from developing a strong vocabulary in either language," he points out.

"The best way, I feel, is still immersion - travelling or studying in Chinese-speaking environments. Having more classes and subjects taught in Chinese at the primary, secondary and junior college levels will also help, as this will enable students to use the language at a higher level later in life.

In 1974, Prof Dean became so proficient in Chinese that he wrote his college application essay to Brown University in the language, and was admitted.

For the last 25 years, he has been a professor at McGill University in Canada.

He is married to a 59-year-old American musician and they have two children, aged 30 and 26.

His family is based in the United States and Canada, and will visit him regularly when he moves to Singapore in January.

"My whole family can speak Mandarin and write some Chinese. We feel this is an invaluable skill, given China's growing global influence," he says.

He says this of Singapore: "I'm constantly amazed at the linguistic skills of my NUS counterparts, as well as those of Taoist priests, temple leaders, teachers, writers and newspaper professionals in Singapore.

"I expect to learn a great deal from everyone here."

NUS student Dean Wang, 26, who will be pursuing a PhD in Chinese studies, has approached Prof Dean to be his PhD supervisor. He says: "I'm very inspired by him because of his interest in Chinese temples here.

"On one of our visits to the local temples last year, I observed that he knew so much about them - from the stone inscriptions to the words on the flags to the designs on the roofs and pillars.

"He is really one of the best in the field, and there's a lot I can learn from him."


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