Wednesday 11 May 2011

Why not learn another language? How about Chinese?
=Guest post=

by Irma Lachmund

We just need to spread the word a bit better about the joy and enrichment that language learning brings to our lives! My 12-year-old boy has been accepted into the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) Academic Languages Program, at Mount Lawley Senior High School in Perth, Western Australia. School commenced in early February and Chinese is becoming the latest addition to the languages in our family.

My daughter has been a participant in this program in the past two years, going into year 10 now. She has the luck of being allowed to learn two languages since year 8. Tuition in German is part of the GATE program and she chose Italian as other language within the normal school curriculum. She is doing well and received highest marks for both languages, most likely assisted by the fact that we speak German at home despite living in Australia.

Since 2010, only one language can be selected by students in the GATE program and there is only a choice between Italian and Chinese. As my boy has been learning Italian in Primary School for seven years and, like his fellow students, still cannot say much more than his name, age and what he likes doing after school, he decided to learn Chinese. He is a bit unsure about this journey, especially since his sister told him that many students complain about how hard it is to learn Chinese.

I have been interested in the Chinese language since a short trip to Hong Kong and Guangzhou in 1985. I spent two weeks with a friend in Central. To overcome language barriers with cab drivers, and to make sure that I got home ok, I was taught to say in Cantonese: “Please drive me to Kennedy Road number 37, at number 31 please turn right”. I have never forgotten this sentence and practice it now and then with Cantonese speakers that I meet in my life. Not always successful I might say, as my pronunciation surely changed significantly in the past 25 years, with this experience becoming more and more faded. But at least it always gets me a laugh and helps me to connect with the people I meet.

German is my mother tongue. Plattdeutsch, or Low German, a dialect, was spoken in our house during my childhood. This dialect was considered inferior, so the children were never addressed in that language but talked to in standard German, the language used for writing. Sadly, the dialect is now lost in the village where I grew up. I learnt English from year 5 and French from year 7 at school, as learning two languages at high school was and still is a normal part of the school curriculum in Germany. After finishing high school, I added some Italian in evening classes, as I liked the Italian lifestyle and wanted to complement the words that I picked up while on holidays there. At university, after my law degree, I studied Indonesian and even worked as a junior lawyer for the German-Indonesian Chamber of Trade and Commerce (Perkumpulan Ekonomi Indonesia-Jerman) in the late eighties. But all these languages use the same script and work in a similar way. If a German speaker reads aloud an Indonesian text and pronounces each word as if it was written in German, an Indonesian speaker is able to understand what has been said.

My decision to join my boy in learning Mandarin came from the heart.  

The three language learners in my family.
Photo: Irma Lachmund

I intend to work along the same workbook and use additional sites on the internet to complement the written words. My friend Dr Mandy Scott from Canberra has been involved in the Association for Learning Mandarin in Australia. She visited us with her mother a little while ago and we had a chat about whether it is really that hard to learn Chinese. Apparently, the time to acquire comfortable language speaking levels for English speakers has been estimated. People agree that Mandarin is among the languages most difficult to learn.

But I believe that we have the advantage of already knowing and speaking more than one language. Also I understand that the grammar of Mandarin is simple. Biggest hurdle for me so far is the school’s learning focus on the acquisition of written Chinese. I am sure we’ll deal with that. When we keep up the conversation in our daily language learning practice, we should be all right. In addition, my daughter’s best friend is a native Chinese speaker and we could arrange special tuition from her, or join Chinese language courses at publicly funded adult learning institutions, such as TAFE, or any of the private businesses. Also, Bilingual Families Perth compiled a list of useful online resources for the Chinese language learner, that we are checking out at the moment.

We have a plan, and encouraging experiences are available from across the ocean. Multilingual Living, a network of multilingual people based in Seattle, ran the Language Challenge 101, where individuals and whole families committed to learning a new language over 101 days. They had many participants and video logs of their experiences are available on the website. My boy’s Chinese knowledge is progressing quickly; as for me, I am far behind, but I am on my way.

People are having fun learning another language, within their own setting and at their own pace.
Irma Lachmund is the chairperson and founder of Bilingual Families Perth, a not for profit network of families with more than one language in Western Australia. She also authors a blog

© Irma Lachmund 2011

Next post: Big multilinguals. Saturday 14th May 2011.


  1. Thank you Irma for your inspiring post.

    I started myself learning chinese with my children.

    A resource useful to me are the free podcasts of Serge Melnyk at

    I would be interested in finding methods in French to learn chinese, targeted to children. Let me know if you know of any.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Franck and for sharing a useful link.
    A few cites pop up that contain general Chinese lessons for French speakers. These are not targeting children but in most cases they are available free of charge, such as,; and from Canada

    Depending on the age of the children you might rather work with flashcards that show the picture, the French and the Chinese word on the other side. It is easy to make your own and you can involve the children in the process. But there are free flashcard makers on the web and plenty of images too. Ensure the assistance of a Chinese speaker and you get it right.

    Music is another great method. Repeating the songs over and over again will make the words stick. Here is one example "Head and shoulders, knees and toes" in Chinese
    Best wishes from Irma

  3. It's interesting how we have so many Chinese in Singapore who don't wish to learn Mandarin. We hear a lot in schools when students complain that Chinese is difficult! And what's interesting is that we English teachers get stares from the students when we speak in Mandarin (the fact is most of us can speak the language pretty well), and eyeballs pop when we WRITE in Chinese :) -- Jessie

  4. Hello Irma,

    To be more motivated to learn Chinese and to learn about technology, we build an iPad and iPhone app: Princesses Learn Chinese. It integrates some of the things you recommended in your answer back in May: it has flashcards, we worked with native chinese speakers and teachers, and we did some simple songs. It is also story based with some games for kids to have fun.

    With the app we aim at exposing children to their first Mandarin Chinese words and expressions, so really entry level. We had our own kids in mind.

    We had a lot of fun doing it, and we had our children that gave us feedback. Our own humble way to move the needle forward in exposing kids to other languages.

    The app is free, and can be downloaded here:

    We would really appreciate your feedback on it.


  5. Thank you Franck, I have been waiting to respond to your comment in the hope that I was given the opportunity to try out your application, but unfortunately I still use an old style phone and in the past month did not have a chance to actually try it out.

    However, I will publicise the link to your application on our website and as well in the next newsletter of Bilingual Families Perth (

    Thank you for the development of this learning tool, it's great to see creativity and fun involved in the mix. If it's easy to take your language resources with you at all times, they are at hand when the you have to wait somewhere, eg in a queue, on public transport or at the hairdresser.

    Unfortunately my language learning has come to a stand still and I will make another attempt in a classroom environment at the start of 2012.

    Thanks again for the sharing of your information.


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