Breaking out

David - Director of StudiesDavid Larbalestier
Director of Studies - UTS:INSEARCH

Studying a first-class English course in Australia is just the start of long-term language success. Informal friendships and social immersion are also essential to lasting linguistic learning.

A long time ago, in the early 70s, when I was trying to decide what I should study at university, a cousin advised that I should perhaps consider learning Chinese. Australia had just established diplomatic relations with the Peoples’ Republic of China and my relative was preparing to take up a posting in Beijing at the new Australian embassy there.

So, I took his advice and when I enrolled in a Bachelors degree program at Sydney University I chose Mandarin.

No language is easy, but Chinese presents a particular challenge – the written script is not alphabetic, but instead consists of thousands and thousands of pictograms, each one giving almost no clue of how it should be pronounced.  My fellow Mandarin students were amazingly committed to overcoming all barriers to mastering this great language. I shared a house for a while with a couple of them.  As we were beginner learners my housemates labelled all the household items with the written Chinese characters – fridge, table, chair, cupboard, door. One even bought records of Chinese revolutionary operas and learned to play the Chinese flute (I remember this clearly because I had to suffer listening to him practise).  We formed the Chinese Studies Association,  screened classic Chinese films and organised other events. We used to have Chinese tea ceremonies in one of the university cafeterias and regularly ate in Chinese restaurants in Dixon Street, where we battled  to decipher the menu.

One of the great difficulties in learning any language is finding opportunities to develop spoken skills. This group joined the Chinese Youth League in Dixon Street, Chinatown. We learned songs and entertained other Chinese there with our questionable renditions of popular songs – “Wo ai Beijing Tiananmen!”, or “San ge laohu” (to the tune of Frere Jacques). 

If we heard that a Chinese ship was coming into port we would meet the boat and insist on chatting to the Chinese crew.

There is a lesson here. You cannot master any language by just thinking about it. You really have to make a concerted effort to “break out” of the prison of a dependence on your own mother tongue. This requires considerable determination and effort.

Now that I am Director of Studies at UTS:INSEARCH I see hundreds of English students each year on their journey to university. I would urge each of them to take a linguistic risk. UTS has a student population of more than 20,000 young Australians. There are dozens of clubs, societies and associations – social, sport, political and religious. There are ample opportunities and ways to meet young Australians and establish friendships. But only if you really want to. One just needs to break out of the comfort of one’s familiar world. Make the effort. Take the trouble.

While I was the Associate Dean at the Sydney Institute of Language and Commerce (SILC) Shanghai University I employed many young foreign teachers from Australia, The United States, and Britain. Many of these young teachers wanted the Chinese experience for their future résumés, and they were determined to learn Chinese. Some even wanted to learn Shanghai dialect. While some American teachers used to go to the American bars on a Friday night, and Aussies would meet up at the Consulate’s  Australia Club, the really determined teachers  would hang out at watering holes mostly frequented by local Chinese. Some teachers decided to play basketball with our students, every afternoon, on the court outside the staff room. Their knowledge of Shanghainese improved dramatically – even if it wasn’t always the most appropriate vocabulary.

Australia is a multi-cultural society. And our school is a microcosm of that community. Australian students with colourful and mixed heritage from across the globe mingle with overseas students from over a hundred countries. So students, now is your chance. Break out. Start a friendship with someone new and unexpected. Someone who sounds, thinks, looks and believes differently from you. No matter what their heritage or first language, you will still have to speak in English – the common language that binds us all, here in Australia.


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Luu Thi Thu Ha Hi Dr.David, I always remember your friendliness when we were at the Camtesol conference in 2011 in Cambodia. In Vietnam, I am teaching IELTS basing on Study English program and it works really well. Currently, I am seeking for chance to continue my PhD in teaching English field, especially IELTS in Australia. I would like to ask if you can be my instructor? Please email me if you receive my message. Thanks and best regards, Luu Ha

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