Back in the 1960s in China’s Anhui province, Lang Sun grew up speaking Mandarin. At university, he learned French. Then he picked up Shanghainese. Then Cantonese. Then Sichuanese. Then English and Spanish. Then Japanese. Then Russian and, finally, German. His French became so strong that he eventually taught in a French immersion program in Vancouver.
Sun’s first language is an increasingly popular choice for adults seeking a second language in Vancouver. Today, about 200 adult students per semester clamour for Mandarin at UBC Continuing Studies, where Sun is the Asia-Pacific program director of languages, cultures, and travel.
“There’s nothing wrong with being unilingual at all,” Sun told the Georgia Straight. “But having a second language will take you a little farther in life, in joie de vivre. Even if you put aside professional and employment requirements, it will get you a little more joy in life.”
On a recent Monday night, Mandarin student Sara Smith was practising her ni hao mas at UBC Robson Square. Smith grew up in Tsawwassen in the 1990s speaking English at home and learning French in South Delta secondary’s immersion program.
“I don’t find I use French at all,” the 25-year-old insurance broker told the Straight. “But in my job, because there’s a substantial Asian population on the West Coast”¦I don’t know if I’ll ever be fluent enough to use Mandarin for business, but to be able to do the niceties and acknowledge certain customs is definitely beneficial.”
You’d think that, like Sun, all Lower Mainlanders would grow up building linguistic muscle. Vancouver sits across the water from economic tigers China and India; the city was built on Coast Salish land; and in several Vancouver neighbourhoods, Chinese is the mother tongue of more residents than English or French. In Oakridge, for example, 50.5 percent of the population has Chinese as a mother tongue, according to the City of Vancouver’s 2006 community profiles, compared with 31.6 percent English. In Sunset, 26.1 percent speak Punjabi as a first language, followed by 24.9 percent English and 21.3 percent Chinese. In Killarney, 38.4 percent spoke Chinese first, compared with 33.5 percent English. In all three of these neighbourhoods, demographics shifted between 1996 and 2006 in favour of those whose first language was neither English nor French.
Despite this diversity, the immersion programs offered by the region’s public elementary schools, university requirements, and official-language laws are not snapping to change.
That frustrates Suzanne Nelson, a member of the newly created Burnaby branch of B.C. Parents for Mandarin. Nelson describes herself as Caucasian and speaks English and high-school French. Her three-year-old son, Josiah, is half Chinese and speaks, so far, English. She would like him to grow up speaking Mandarin. First, she said, so he can communicate with his peers. Second, because it’s his heritage language. Third, to open a world of career opportunities to him when he grows up.
On February 16, the Vancouver school board voted unanimously, in principle, to start Mandarin learning in at least one elementary school by September 2010, B.C. Parents for Mandarin spokesperson Lara Honrado told the Straight. This follows similar steps taken by North Vancouver and Burnaby, which will both start Mandarin in some kindergartens over the next two years, she said.
So far, though, B.C. has just one Mandarin bilingual program, running from grades 4 through 7 at Dr. Annie B. Jamieson elementary school, near Oakridge Centre. B.C. Parents for Mandarin is hoping that school boards will introduce full bilingual programs starting in kindergarten, catching kids before their ability to learn language starts to drop. The model is Edmonton’s 27-year-old Mandarin bilingual program, which runs kindergarten through Grade 12.
In addition, the Lower Mainland’s universities—with the exception of UBC—don’t require language learning from the grads they’re sending into the world. The public-affairs departments at four of the new universities—Capilano University, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, the University of the Fraser Valley, and Emily Carr University of Art + Design—confirmed that they don’t require university-level language courses for undergraduate graduation. Neither does SFU, apart from a couple of specialized degrees.
At UBC, however, Andrew Arida, the associate director of enrollment, confirmed that languages are still required in the arts faculty. If a student is entering with a Grade 11 language, such as French, he or she must take a full year of French. If the student wishes to begin studying a different language, two full years are required. However, if a student has completed a Grade 12 language course, there is no university-level requirement, Arida told the Straight.
The Northwest Territories is the pioneer in legislated linguistic recognition. With 11 official tongues—English, French, Cree, Chipewyan, Tlicho, Gwich’in, North Slavey, South Slavey, Inuvialuktun, Inuinnaqtun, and Inuktitut—the territory of 42,514 people as of 2008 has recognized most local and some external languages since 1990.
But Northwest Territories languages commissioner Shannon Gullberg warned that just because a language is official doesn’t mean it’s widely spoken. The way the territory supports its official languages is currently under review.
“We’ve talked about languages till we’re blue in the face, and it hasn’t gotten us anywhere,” Gullberg told the Straight in a phone interview from Yellowknife.
That said, she noted that over the past five years, the government has introduced much stronger language-learning requirements into elementary schools; now all students must take French or an aboriginal language starting in kindergarten.
In the Lower Mainland, the grown-up hunger to play catch-up on Mandarin learning is largely being fed privately, through university continuing-education programs, community centres, and private schools.
But according to Kenny Zhang, senior research analyst with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, the language skills needed to conduct business in Asia can’t be learned in a crash course. Those who aren’t fluent, he said, will struggle overseas.
Sun knows that many of his students take language courses for professional reasons, and that’s fine. But the joy of understanding another language and more closely encountering a culture, he said, is a pleasure that goes far beyond cold cash.