Mandarin program bridging cultures

Andrea Svetic and her five-year-old son Callum were in the waiting room of a walk-in clinic when they noticed an elderly man having trouble communicating with the receptionist.

He was trying to give her a phone number to call so someone could translate for him, but he only spoke Mandarin and the receptionist did not.

Callum stepped in and translated the number in English, "which I thought was pretty cool," said Svetic. "The man was very grateful."

The story is just one example of how much the Svetic family has embraced the Burnaby school district's Mandarin language program offered at Forest Grove elementary.

Svetic is originally from Wales and her husband Druggan is of Croatian background. They both wanted their children to take advantage of the diverse multicultural region where they live.

When their daughter Matia was entering kindergarten, the Svetics wanted her to learn a second language and were considering French immersion but decided on Mandarin "because of where we live." They saw Mandarin offering opportunities particularly in business.

"With a background in Mandarin, as the years go on you would be well equipped to handle anything that comes along," Svetic said.

And unlike languages such as French or Spanish, there are endless opportunities to practise Mandarin in the Lower Mainland, increasing the chances the kids will retain what they've learned in the long run, she noted.

She is grateful that one of the Mandarin teachers spent time teaching parents someĀ  basic words in the language so they could help their children. And Svetic's kids have been teaching her the rest.

Matia, now in Grade 2, and Callum, in kindergarten, will talk to each other in the language and use it to ask their parents for items from the fridge and to say please and thank you.

When they play with the kids next door, their neighbours' non-English-speaking mom can now converse with Matia and Callum in Mandarin. And it being Chinese New Year, Svetic said their house "looks like an Asian home," decorated with lanterns andĀ  banners.

She said the kids are also wanting to go farther afield out of their comfort zone to practise what they've learned, to Chinese restaurants, for instance, which they might not have done before. On a recent such trip, Matia did some of the ordering which elicited a few giggles from the server and, Svetic guessed, perhaps a friendly correction.

When asked whether the kids use it to communicate behind her back, she laughed.

"When I asked my daughter to clean her room she muttered something in Mandarin. I'm not sure what it was, I'm not sure I want to know."

Children can apply to enter Burnaby's Mandarin language program in kindergarten or grades 1 to 3. It's not an immersion program but rather, part of the language arts curriculum is taught in Mandarin while the regular core curriculum is taught in English. It is held only at Forest Grove elementary and is designed for students with strong English language skills.

The deadline for applications is Feb. 28. Info: <>.

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