by Andy Urbino
When I meet Robert, a 15 year old student from Narbonne in Southern France, he is discussing the price of mangoes with a stall owner in the local market. Numbers are coming back and forth till a compromise that satisfies both parties is agreed upon and the juicy and aromatic fruits change hands. This could be daily routine for any French teenager except the fact that the whole negotiation takes place in Mandarin in one of Taipei's wet markets. Robert ticks one more item from his shopping list and looks happy with the result - Let's see if anybody can beat me this time! He says with a smile in his eyes and a touch of pride.
Robert is not alone; around him 6 other foreign young boys and girls are bargaining hard in different stalls hoping to get the lowest price of the group. They come from France, Spain and Hong Kong and they all enrolled in KCS Education's Mandarin summer camp in Taiwan. Today they are competing to see who will get the fruits in the shopping list at the lowest price.
Christina Chiang, the summer camp coordinator tells me "The kids are very competitive. We found it's a great way to let them speak Mandarin and interact with the locals in a natural and fun way." "Sadly, most students travelling abroad to a typical language summer camp this summer, will hardly exchange a few words with the locals, a great waste of time, money and a missed opportunity to learn, improve and use the language they are supposed to learn. When we set up to organize our Mandarin summer camps, from the very beginning, we put our effort in finding ways to get the boys to speak Mandarin in a natural environment once they left the classroom" she says.
Contests, workshops and sports are on the menu for the teenagers joining the summer courses, and all the activities require them to communicate with Mandarin speaking people from all ages, backgrounds and trades. "We create real life situations where the kids have to use their Chinese language skills to get things done. Their response is great and everybody spends a fun time "Indeed, some situations and misunderstandings can be very entertaining: " Once we asked the students to book the hotel rooms for their weekend excursion and I can tell you the hotel clerks on the line were quite puzzled when one Spanish student requested a booking for "a house with two boats" instead of a room with two beds (both sound very similar in Chinese), eventually the student got his request understood and he definitely will remember how to properly pronounce it the next time! It is not easy to figure out activities and situations where the kids will speak Mandarin, but time, effort, a lot of brainstorming and some very unusual techniques are helping foreign kids in Taiwan get fluent in Mandarin and enjoy learning Chinese this summer.