When learning a language, textbooks can only take you so far.
That’s why UBC Prof. Qian Wang was seeking innovative ways to help third-year language students improve their Mandarin speaking skills. She didn’t have to look too far – the Learning Exchange had a unique solution that offered both real-life learning and community engagement.
“I had learned about community-based learning at a campus showcase and it was an eye-opener for me,” says Wang, Instructor and Chinese Language Program Director in UBC’s Asian Studies Dept.
After discussions with staff and faculty colleagues, she was introduced to the Learning Exchange as a community-based learning option that might be a good fit for her students. She worked with the Learning Exchange to develop a program that partnered students with seniors in the Downtown Eastside’s Mandarin-speaking community. These life-long learners meet weekly at the Learning Exchange’s English Conversation Program. They generously agreed to share sessions with the young Mandarin speakers – creating a ready-made community learning space for UBC students.
“Discussions with the seniors made the textbook material stand up – it was amazing to see how students benefited from this communication,” says Wang. “They learned more than the academic side of language, they got into the core of Chinese culture. The seniors have not been ‘internationalized’ like some younger residents – they represent a native Chinese perspective.”
Asian Studies major Jordan Galpin was one of the 13 students who participated in a series of four language sessions. “Some of these seniors have lived through the rise of Communism and the Cultural Revolution – it was great to hear their opinions on these topics.”
Conversations ranged from marriage and the one-child policy to employment prospects for Chinese university graduates.
Sarah Makhmour, whose studies focus on classical Chinese texts and literature, says the sessions were “an experience of a lifetime.”
“It was such a wonderful opportunity to talk to these seniors – I felt so humbled and honoured for them to share their life stories with me. They have gone through many difficulties and obstacles because of the generation they were living in.”
She adds that the seniors taught her more than language.
“I learned not to be so caught up with life. People my age are always on the go, stressed out about life. So around the seniors I felt incredibly relaxed and comfortable.”
For the seniors – most of whom arrived in Canada in the last 10 years – it was a chance to contribute to student learning by sharing their personal experiences. The group included former engineers, physical education teachers, clothing designers and business owners. They were impressed by the students’ knowledge and curiosity about China. And, the students’ energy made them feel young again.
The seniors came to UBC’s Point Grey campus to hear student presentations (delivered in Mandarin) about the assigned topics and the Learning Exchange experience.
“Students loved the seniors,” says Asian Studies Language Instructor Xinxin Wu. “They felt they got the real story from them – it opened their minds.”
Another community-based learning program, this time involving students and senior Cantonese speakers, is being planned with the Learning Exchange.
“This is a great group of people to work with – they are practical, open-minded and willing to accommodate,” says Wang. “Their dedicated support is key for this kind of project to fly.”