A Chinese-Australian’s Reflections on Language and Culture: a response to Bland Culture

By Tanya Lau, Sydney, Australia

I was inspired to reflect on my own experiences of language and culture by Ana Carolina Calil’s EdConteXts post Bland Culture. As an Australian-born Chinese, I found that much of her story of learning English as a Brazilian kid mirrored mine, of learning Chinese: “I remember being dragged to class because we HAD TO learn Cantonese”. I don’t recall being told it was “important for our future”; the reason we were given was more along the lines of “because YOU’RE Chinese” – whatever that meant.

Like Ana Carolina, we were taught a language without context; and adding to the alienation was a pedagogy based on learning by rote and repetition. A regular homework assignment from Chinese school was to copy sets of Chinese characters into rows of specially designed grid books using a traditional calligraphy quill and ink pot. It was fun…at first. But for a 7 year old, writing the same Chinese character into a 2x2cm square every week gets boring by about character no. 5, week 1 –turning what could have been an inspiring learning experience into a dreaded chore. The historical significance of calligraphy in Chinese culture was never explained – we were simply instructed to do. That Chinese school was on a Saturday didn’t help either: while our friends from school were playing, we were reciting or copying Chinese texts.

Chinese school photo

Chinese school, where my sister and I spent Saturdays learning Cantonese.

The result is that we didn’t learn all that much Chinese. I still remember some simple characters, can count to ten, speak and understand basic phrases. But despite reciting phrases from Chinese textbooks and copying rows of Chinese characters, I still can’t remember how to read or write any Chinese. What I have retained of Cantonese language is probably as much a result of spending time with our grandparents (who spoke little English) up until about age 5, as it is of being dragged to Chinese school every Saturday for 3-4 years from age 6.

The snippets of Chinese I do know corroborate this: my Cantonese vocabulary remains at the level of a 3 year old, the 3 Cantonese phrases I‘m most familiar with being: “What are you doing?”, “I don’t like it”, and “I’m eating dinner” (which, if you’ve ever spent much time with a 3 year old, you might be all too familiar with….) And when I think of the Cantonese words I know, almost all relate to aspects of Chinese culture I know through family experiences – names of foods on the yum cha trolley, mystical items in the Chinese grocery store I recognise from our family kitchen.

Whereas, aside from calligraphy, grid books, and Chinese textbooks with pictures of kids with very red, rosy cheeks, there is little I recollect from Chinese school.

Chinese flashcard

Flashcard, flashback: had a flashback to Chinese school when my dad gave us these Chinese flashcards recently.

Ana Carolina’s post calls for language learning to be embedded in authentic cultural experiences where students can make meaningful connections. I’d agree it’s likely I’d have learnt more Cantonese had the language teaching at Chinese school been embedded more deeply within its cultural context, instead of entirely divorced from it. It might have inspired a more positive language learning experience and triggered a greater interest in and understanding of, my Chinese cultural heritage. But, language school – or any formal learning experience – is only one part of the puzzle in embedding and enmeshing culture and language. There is a bigger context backgrounding here. To truly understand a language – and its culture – you have to experience it, live it.

The trouble with this, for me, was that I was learning to speak Cantonese in an environment where the dominant culture was not Chinese, but Anglo-Saxon. Sure, I lived in a Chinese family, and had direct exposure to authentic bits of Chinese culture. But, my parents’ induction into Western / Anglo culture had started long before we were born: my dad had been in Australia since he was 12; my mum in the UK since she was 19. So, although we spoke a mixture of Cantonese and English at home when we were little, as we grew up, English increasingly took over and we spoke less and less Cantonese, until eventually English was all we spoke. Whilst my parents would’ve liked us to speak more Cantonese, they didn’t insist on it. They didn’t have a large number of Chinese friends – most of the family friends I recall visiting were of English or European heritage. We didn’t live in an area where a lot of Chinese congregated (there were more Italians than Asians in our neighbourhood).

Tanya's preschool picture

Preschool in our neighbourhood, where there was only one other Asian kid, aside from my sister and I.

The choices and actions of our parents were unconsciously passing on messages and values which told us that being ‘less Chinese’ and more ‘Anglo’ was ‘better’ – and, in 1980s Australia, the reality was, that these values probably did make life easier for us.

In contrast, my Aunt, living a couple of streets from us, held on much more tightly to her Chinese roots – working and socialising with other Hong Kong Chinese, and retaining Cantonese as the dominant language in the home. After almost as many years living in Australia as my mother, my Aunt still speaks somewhat broken English. But whilst my sisters and I can barely speak Cantonese, our cousins speak it fluently – all without ever going to Chinese school.

In Australia, a country of immigrants, but where the English speaking, Anglo, Western culture dominates, my parents’ story might be seen by some as an example of successful ‘integration’ into ‘Australian’ society; and my Aunt’s (perhaps depending on who you asked), less so. In a big, multicultural city like Sydney, retaining one’s native language is now much more openly accepted – and indeed, encouraged. The Sydney Morning Herald reported recently that 40% of households in Sydney speak a language other than English at home, with more than 250 languages spoken in Sydney.

Chinese & English library books

My local library has Chinese children’s books alongside the English ones.

But while our society seems to be willing to accept languages other than English spoken in the home, what about outside of it? There is arguably now less open derision of migrants who speak their native language in public – unfettered, racist outbursts of abuse to “go home” are less common than they were (although definitely still occur). But how often are these migrants privately derided, and privately judged by passers-by, even by those of their own race? Societal pressure to ‘assimilate’ into the prevailing, Anglo culture still exists, and always will. Discrimination and bias against those who don’t – or don’t appear to be ‘assimilating’ likewise will always exist, so long as the prevailing culture exists. It simply becomes less obvious, more insidious, more unconscious.

It means that parents who want their Australian born children to speak their native language need to make a conscious effort to teach not just the language, but to immerse them in the practices of the culture, and involve them in experiences which cultivate a deep appreciation, understanding and value of the history and culture of the language.

As to Ana Carolina’s call for action to “..ensure that the world cultures are not given lukewarm status in the foreign language classroom”? Egege & Kutieleh (2004) provide insights for culturally sensitive teaching that apply not just to the language learning classroom, but any classroom where cultural differences feature. Discussing the challenges of Australian universities teaching to an increasingly international (particularly, South East Asian) student population, Egege & Kutieleh advocate an approach which acknowledges, appreciates, and makes explicit cultural assumptions on both sides – the teachers’ and students’.


Egege, S., & Kutieleh, S. (2004). Critical thinking: Teaching foreign notions to foreign students. International Education Journal, 4(4), 75-85. Retrieved from http:/iej.cjb.net/

* A brilliantly relevant article shared by EdConteXts facilitator Maha Bali when reviewing this piece.

3 thoughts on “A Chinese-Australian’s Reflections on Language and Culture: a response to Bland Culture

  1. Dear Tanya,

    Thank you so much for sharing. As educators, we surely need to talk more about our experiences as teachers and learners. Our academic ‘wonderings’ sometimes prevent us from looking at our students first and we end up going from one class to the other without even thinking about their needs and expectations. By doing this, we do what we assume to be best for them according to the newest editorial trends, therefore failing them over and over again.

    1. Thanks for YOUR inspiration and contribution to this post, Ana! You really got me thinking and reflecting on my own experiences. That’s a good point too re trends – and something I’ve certainly come to realise much more as a result of my involvement in edcontexts: that focus on trends, benchmarks, best practices, large scale teaching (e.g. MOOCs) and the like can sometimes detract from contextualising learning and teaching practices to suit your own students. It highlights the importance of always considering context in teaching and learning. Thanks again , has been great considering these issues with you.

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