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Language Learning Stories
interview with
Dr Rebecca Cairns

Language Learning Stories
interview with
Dr Rebecca Cairns

Welcome back to Language Learning Stories.

Language Learning Stories interview with Chinese learner Dr Rebecca Cairns

My guest today is Chinese learner Dr Rebecca Cairns.

Rebecca has recently completed her PhD (her PhD title is ‘The Representation of Asia in Victorian Senior Secondary History Curriculum.’) and is a lecturer in Education for the Master of Applied Learning and Teaching at Deakin University.

Prior to this Bec was a teacher for twelve years teaching History, Philosophy and English in secondary schools in Victoria and Far North Queensland. Her interest in modern Chinese history led to her studying in Chinese and living in Nanjing and Beijing for a year.

I first met Bec in Nanjing, China in 2013 when we were both studying Chinese.

Thank you to Bec for her interview! You can read all the Language Learning Stories interviews here!

Dr Rebecca Cairns for Lingo Mama
Rebecca Cairns in Xian. "I love the food in Shaanxi Provence, though Sichuan has the best food".

Why did you decide to start learning Chinese?

My interest in learning Chinese grew from teaching Year 12 Chinese history. I had also been studying a Master of Education in Studies of Asia, so that and a couple of visits to China encouraged me too. In 2013 I received a Hamer scholarship from the Victorian Government which allowed me to study a semester of elementary Chinese at Nanjing Normal University. My overall aim was to develop a richer cultural understanding and less so to become a fluent speaker.

How long have you been learning for?

I started an introductory TAFE course in 2012 but I did not start in earnest until I went to study in Nanjing. In the last few years my Chinese has taken a back seat while I completed a PhD but now I don’t have that as an excuse I need to get cracking!

What level would you say you are currently?

At present my level of Chinese is best classified as embarrassing! I have a solid foundation but lack of practice means it has deteriorated.

Where have you studied? Have you done any language learning trips?

My semester studying at Nanjing Normal University was intense. I could barely count to ten when I started but by the end I was familiar with about 500 characters. It was not until I spent a few months travelling around China after that I developed a bit more confidence.

What awards have you received?

Awards? Ha ha! I should get one for least improved!

What tools and resources do you use/have you relied on?

While I was studying in China I really liked the Train Chinese apps, especially the one that tests writing characters, reading characters and pinyin and listening. More recently I have been trying to reboot things with Duo Lingo. At the moment popular culture is my main teacher. I listen to the local radio station 3CW in the car. I loved listening to them call an AFL match in Chinese on 3ZZZ – when someone got a nice goal they cheered “piaoliang!” My ‘study’ also extends to watching Chinese dating shows like Fei Cheng Wu Rao and Zhong Guo Shi Xiang Qin. ShaoLan’s Talk Chineasy podcasts are also good because they explore particular words in a conceptual way. Penny gets me texting in Chinese too and I have some friends in China I keep in touch with on Weixin. My favourite study strategy is practicing a couple of songs for KTV.

What’s one of the best or most worthwhile investments you have made to do with your language learning?

I think taking leave from my job and living on $5000 for nearly six months in Nanjing was a good investment. I don’t think I could ever have learnt as much as I did if I did not go to China to study.

Has your motivation for learning gone up and down over the years? How do you keep motivated?

As you can see from my above responses, my motivation and progress has seriously declined! Over the last couple of years some brief trips to China and Taiwan have been good motivators.

How have you been able to use your Chinese language skills in your career?

I do not use Chinese in my work as an education academic at Deakin directly, apart from speaking to international Chinese students at Deakin and a conference to Taiwan. However, it has been important in other ways.

It has deepened my intercultural understanding which has been important for the work I do as an educator and an education researcher. For example, I felt much more confident after my year in China to do things such as author a student workbook on the Chinese Revolution because I had knowledge of new resources and a much more complex historical understanding.

I might not have ended up researching the representation of Asia in history curriculum, or even doing a PhD, if I did not take leave from my job as a secondary school teacher for the purpose of going to China to learn Chinese.

In addition to enhancing my intercultural and historical understanding, it has also enabled me to develop my understanding of China-Australia bilateral relations which is relevant to my work.

What have you learnt about yourself through learning Chinese?

This is a good question! I think while I was studying In Nanjing, I learnt a lot about myself as a learner – how I like to learn plus my good bad habits as a learner. As a teacher I learnt a great deal about my own pedagogical preferences in contrast to the very teacher-centred and didactic way we were taught at the university. When it comes to speaking with people in Chinese out and about I can be a bit introverted; it might help to be a bit conversationally bolder and braver!

What’s the hardest/most challenging thing about learning Chinese?

For me the hardest thing has been finding the time and study routine to maintain my skills after returning from China. Oh and of course tones are one of the most challenging things!

What has been surprisingly easy about your Chinese language learning journey? (If anything?!)

I love the elegant simplicity of Chinese grammar and the patterns/combination of words. I was also surprised that learning to write and read characters was easier than I thought. Overall, I am also surprised by the amount of Chinese I hear around me on any given day, especially at Deakin or out and about in Geelong or Melbourne.

What advice would you give to aspiring Chinese language learners?

My advice would be, spend some time studying in country if you can.

It’s a few years ago now but this is my blog from the year in China:

If you had your time again, would you learn Chinese, another language or no language at all?

Chinese of course – though it gets a bit mangled up with my Italian, which was never that good anyway. I wish I learnt it when I was much younger though to lay down stronger synaptic connections!

What are your language plans for the future?

Well at the moment, my plan for Chinese extends to trying the new dumpling restaurant in Geelong. We have at least three now! Maybe I will try to find a language exchange partner or teacher. Actually, I need someone tough like Chen Laoshi from Nanjing Normal University to whip me into shape with some dictation tests! Realistically, I hope to at least maintain my tourist Chinese and also keep learning about the diversity of China and Chinese-Australia from historical and contemporary perspectives.

Thanks for joining me for another Language Learning Stories. And a huge thank you to Bec for this interview.

Do you have a question for Bec? Please pop your questions in the comments below.

You can read more interviews here! So far I have interviewed Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and Portuguese speakers, with more to come!

If you have a question you’d love me to ask a language learner, please get in touch! Also if you or someone you know would be a perfect interviewee, please contact me!


Until next time,

Lingo Mama


Penelope Wilson

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