M Stories Senior School

M Stories:  Leo Lee's Mom Was Right

Leonard Lee and his Mother outside on the campus of Munich International School
Leo Lee and his mother on campus at Munich International School

“The why?  The most important reason why I keep up my home language of Mandarin is my mom” says Leo.  “My mom insisted that I continue learning Mandarin.  I used to think she was pushy; but now that I’m a bit older, I understand”.      

You may recognize Leonardo (Leo) Lee from MIS social media.  Earlier in the school year, he wowed the MIS community at the Grade 10 Personal Project Exhibition with his custom-made keyboards.  Leo’s entrepreneurial spirit (@smelleymonkie_) is just the tip of the iceberg. 

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Leo arrived in Munich three years ago.  For any internationally mobile family, leaving home means giving up a way of life and many aspects of your own identity.  It’s not possible to replicate your favorite restaurants and stores.  It might be impossible to find the ingredients to make your favorite foods.  Holidays and celebrations don’t have the same atmosphere.  It gets harder to stay in touch with friends and loved ones.  Oftentimes, the only piece of ‘home’ that you can take with you is your home language.  “Having your home language in your brain makes you, you.  Speaking my home language allows me to bring myself back home”. 

That connection extends beyond oneself and to being able to connect with others as well:  Leo reflects on one of his first months in Germany at a festival in Starnberg where he met a Ukrainian woman who had spent five years in China and learned Mandarin. “It made me so happy and surprised to speak with her in Mandarin.  Especially in China, the language is one of the most important parts of the culture.  Even if you are black or white or whatever, if you are living in China and speak Mandarin, you are accepted and respected as if you were Chinese.  And that’s what I felt when I spoke with her”. 

Even though Leo came to Munich fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English, he says “it’s kind of hard to keep up Mandarin because there is not much opportunity to speak it here.  In the middle of my first year in Germany, I started taking Mandarin through MIS’s Mother Tongue Programme four days a week, during school hours with my private tutor, Ms. Jane Lin”.   

“My teacher is great.  I consider her a personal friend” says Leo.  Their Mandarin lessons are sometimes conversational, sometimes vocabulary-focused, and sometimes focused on writing and reading. Leo explains that “written Mandarin and spoken Mandarin are very, very different.  Written Mandarin has around 60,000 characters, but when you are speaking, I feel like you don’t use more than 1,000 words.  So, when you are writing an email or reading a Chinese newspaper or literature, you have to know more vocabulary because they use a lot of words that you wouldn’t traditionally use if you were just speaking with someone.  Almost any type of reading in Mandarin is academic.  You can’t look at the characters and sound them out like an alphabet.  It’s so hard to learn new characters because you just have to memorize them”.   

As a home-language learner, Leo points out that “it’s difficult to keep up your home language in an environment where we are speaking German and English for a major part of the day.  You need to find time to intentionally teach the language.  Casual communication at home is not enough to make progress in speaking, reading, and writing.  If you want your child to have a high level in their home language, you need to provide more intensive language learning support.  The most important thing is to start young”.   

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