I’ve been in Cathy Wang’s seventh-grade Chinese language class at about 20 minutes when I start to wonder what’s up with her students.
I become concerned after hearing 12-year-old Ewan Larkin say, “I really want to take this quiz.”
Excited for a quiz? Huh?
But there was a palpable sense of excitement among Wang’s students throughout the class period as they worked through a variety of exercises, mostly verbal drills, which Wang said is one of the keys to learning the language.
The students repeated words like “telephone” and “number” and phrases like “I’m sorry” and “That’s all right, no problem” three times each. Wang later played music and then a music video, and the students followed along, sounding the words out in a rhythmic pattern to help with memorization.
Chinese is an extremely rhythmic, tonal language, and speaking the words in the form of a song or poetry is an effective way to learn and become comfortable with the language, according to Wang. “I really want them to feel very comfortable with any speaking, reading, listening … When they’re rhyming, or they’re singing, they’re working on tone.”
Wang believes there’s a “stigma” around the Chinese language, that people believe it’s extremely hard to learn. But she insisted, as did fellow Chinese teacher Li Li, that it’s not a difficult language.
“It’s different,” said Li.
'They have to be committed'
Moorestown Friends School is in its fourth year offering Mandarin Chinese (the most common dialect), according to associate head of school Barbara Caldwell.
The school’s 2004 strategic plan called for the addition of a third language (on top of Spanish and French) and a consultant was brought in who made a “very convincing case” for Chinese, she said, “based on the number of Chinese language speakers in the world, and the importance of China in the world.”
At Moorestown Friends, students sample the school’s three language offerings in sixth grade and then pick one to stick with in seventh (though they can switch). While it has yet to approach the popularity of the two European languages, a sizable number of students have opted to take Chinese, Caldwell said. The school has enough students in the program to break classes into two sections (about 12 students per section) at each grade level.
“We’ve learned some things. It’s hard (to learn),” she said, nothing the school is somewhat selective about which students it enrolls in the program. “They don’t have to be brilliant. They have to be committed.”
And since Chinese culture is greatly intertwined with the language, according to Wang, who’s originally from Taiwan, cultural instruction is an equally integral part of the program.
The students’ motivations for enrolling vary—Caldwell said some are attracted “basically cause of the novelty” of learning Chinese—but many of them recognize China’s growing significance in the world.
“Obviously the economy of China, the growth of China, that plays a very important role in this,” said Li, who grew up in China and moved to the U.S. in 1995.
Li will attend a Chinese language teacher training program in her native country next week. She said the program brings teachers from all over the world, from all academic levels, together to learn about new teaching materials and methods.
The weeklong seminar is a great opportunity because it gets teachers out of the bubbles of their own schools, where exposure to new methods and tools may be limited, Li said. “Otherwise, it’s quite limited to you in your school … That’s something that’s very important. You see what other teachers (are doing).”
Caldwell said eventually the school would like to send some of its students to China as well, possibly for study abroad programs during the summer.
Opening children’s minds
Beyond the obvious practicality of learning Chinese in a world where nearly one-sixth of the total population are native speakers, Li, Wang and Caldwell said the program has other benefits as well.
“It’s broadened our curriculum,” said Caldwell, and “brought people into the community who might not have been here otherwise.”
Chinese—and this is where Li’s and Wang’s statement that the language is “different” might be considered an understatement—separates itself from Western dialects in that there are no tenses, no conjugation, and it relies much more heavily on sound and, as Wang said, rhythm. Not to mention the writing, which bears no resemblance to the characters in Western languages.
“Things have to be done in a certain order,” explained Caldwell. “The way the language is spoken, how you get meaning across, is very different.”
For Li, learning a foreign language, especially one as complex as Chinese, is a way to broaden the mind.
“Language in K-12 is to open kids' minds to make them smarter,” she said. “To make them think in a different way … To understand people on the other side of the world—‘How do they think?’”