Hope wings eternal for elderly exiles

September 4, 1998

The Wing Hong (Eternal Hope) Chinese centre in Glasgow is packed. Groups of elderly people are chatting to one another, a number of them keeping an eye on the elaborate preparations for lunch. Some old men are playing mah-jong in an alcove. An aromatherapy session is in progress. And then from one room comes the improbable sound of the children's action song: "Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes."

The chorus is being led by volunteers from the "learning in later life" project run by Strathclyde University's senior studies institute, which is helping bridge the language gap that still exists for many Chinese living in Scotland.

Hundreds of Chinese came from Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s. Often from rural backgrounds, they always intended to return. Many developed enough English skills to work effectively in restaurants or takeaways. But now, retired from work and realising they are unlikely to return to Hong Kong following its handover to mainland China, they are keen to improve their spoken English.

Project coordinator Clio Barr says many Chinese feel very isolated from the wider Scottish community because of their lack of English, particularly as younger family members have often moved away because of jobs.

"Even a routine visit to the doctor is fraught with possibilities of distressing, possibly dangerous, misunderstandings without a relative to act as interpreter."

Hence the song, helping a class of retired Chinese women to learn vocabulary that could be the topic of a doctor's appointment. "I have a sore head. I have a sore knee," the students repeat.

The Strathclyde volunteers are themselves all aged over 50. The senior studies institute aims not only to enrich its students' leisure time through courses, but also to give them opportunities to put their learning into action through volunteer programmes or paid work. "We want to raise the awareness of the value of older people in society," says Ms Barr.

The volunteers have all had basic training in teaching English as a second language and their one-to-one tuition in conversation supports English lessons from a Chinese teacher. There are several classes a week, each with a maximum of six students.

"The small classes give the students the opportunity to be more confident, and speak to an English-speaking person," says Paul Chow, project leader for the Wing Hong Elderly Group. "It helps them do things like go to the post office to cash their pension or go to pay a bill. But one of the aims is not just to learn the language, but also to make friends and have cultural exchange."

One of the students has brought homemade cakes, leading to a conversation on baking. Their discussion of rice flour wins particular praise from tutor Lisa Sandilands.

"Clusters like 'fl' and 'fr' in words like flour and front are very, very difficult, because they don't have the sound. Many knew hardly any English at all, and yet they're learning so much."

Volunteer Carolyn McLuckie is struck by the students' arithmetical skills and their passion for writing everything down, using their own phonetic transcription of English words. "Most students practise speaking and come on to writing later. But those here like to write."

Ms Barr sees the scheme as invaluable in giving the Scottish volunteers an insight into Chinese culture. "It broadens the outlook of our students. They're doing something they would never have imagined they would do," she says.

"When students come to the senior studies institute, they become involved in something that excites them and get into the way of taking on new experiences. They will take on something like this, trusting that we'll do it well and with panache."

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