'Your Mandarin is better than mine'

'Your Mandarin is better than mine'
(From far left) Elementary Chinese teacher Pauli Haakenson, high school Chinese teacher Sally Lean and elementary counsellor Robin Pearson are from the Singapore American School, Associate Professor John Donaldson teaches political science at the Singapore Management University and Mr Tim Hudson heads the department for English as an additional language at the Australian International School.

When American Pauli Haakenson speaks in Mandarin to taxi drivers and neighbours at the supermarket, some will switch to English halfway through the conversation and say: "Your Mandarin is better than mine."

No surprise. After all, the 48-year-old teaches Chinese at the Singapore American School.

While a spokesman for the Ministry of Education says its records show no Caucasians are teaching mother tongue languages in its schools, a check with 14 international schools, universities and institutes found that Mr Haakenson is among six Caucasian educators here with a good command of Chinese.

While SundayLife! could not find Caucasians who have mastered Malay or Tamil well enough to teach these languages, a handful have certified proficiency in written or spoken Chinese, and use the language daily in a professional setting.

These Westerners previously lived in Chinese-speaking places such as China, Taiwan or Hong Kong, and most have Mandarin-speaking spouses. At least two teach Chinese here.

Australian Sally Lean, 43, for example, is a high school teacher at the Singapore American School. She teaches Chinese to students aged 14 to 18, who come from countries such as India, South Korea and the United States.

The children are taught to read passages, write compositions and tell stories in the language, among other skills.

Last month, Ms Lean was certified to have an "advanced high" level of speaking proficiency by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. The organisation aims to improve and expand the teaching and learning of all languages.

Says Ms Lean: "Some of my friends and colleagues joke that I'm an 'egg' - white on the outside but yellow on the inside.

"I started learning Chinese in an Australian school when I was 12 and have loved it from the very first day.

"Chinese lets me learn more about China, a rising global power whose future is inextricably linked to the future of our world."

Her colleague, Mr Haakenson, is an elementary Chinese teacher who passed Level Five of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi two years ago.

His results in the international standardised exam, which tests and rates Chinese language proficiency, prove he has a vocabulary of at least 2,500 Chinese characters.

He can also read Chinese newspapers and magazines, understand Chinese films and plays, as well as give a full-length speech in Mandarin.

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