Building Skills and Global Awareness in Middle School Mandarin

One by one, the Class 6 students stood in front of the room and talked about their recent trip to Cape Cod, which focused on ecology and oceanography. With photographs from the four-day adventure illuminating the screen behind them, each girl described her activities, the people she was with and her feelings about the four-day excursion.

The exercise in itself would have been an informative, confidence-building follow-up to an enriching visit. The fact that the students’ presentations were delivered exclusively in Mandarin Chinese made the presentations remarkable.

“I want the students’ Mandarin learning to be closely connected with their daily life,” explained Lin Wang, who teaches Class 6, Class 7 and Upper School Chinese. Mr. Wang was among the faculty who accompanied Class 6 to Cape Cod and also served as a photographer, capturing exquisite images of the students exploring the beach, learning about marine animals and unwinding.

For their presentations, Mr. Wang first asked his students to introduce themselves using their Chinese and English names and to state their age, nationality, grade and school. Gesturing to their selected photographs, the girls introduced the classmates posing with them, noting where they stood. (For example: “This is Isabel. She is on my right.”) They also included one or two simple sentences that encapsulated the trip (For example: “I like Cape Cod. The ocean is beautiful.”) Finally, each presenter used her Mandarin to ask if anyone had questions.

As they took turns, the students seemed to delight in this new language, which they began learning in September. (In Class 6, students choose which language they will next study. They can continue with Spanish, which begins in Kindergarten, or pursue either Chinese or French). While the students were learning important skills, the feeling in the room was light-hearted and playful. Mr. Wang gave his students the freedom to express themselves using their developing Mandarin vocabulary and offered guidance and praise throughout.

In between finishing one presentation and setting up the next, Mr. Wang took advantage of the few minutes to review familiar Mandarin words. Because the language uses distinctive characters and relies on different tones to convey meaning, learning to pronounce words is especially challenging. To help, Mr. Wang uses singing and musical instruments.

During this particular class, he brought out his harmonica and led the students in a song called “I Love My Family,” pointing to the words printed on white cards in the front of the room. It went like this:

我爱我的爸爸 I love my father

我爱我的妈妈 I love my mother

哥哥 elder brother

弟弟 younger brother

姐姐 elder sister

妹妹 younger sister

爷爷 grandfather

奶奶 grandmother

我爱我的家 I love my family

 

“Music-assisted learning is a big part of our Middle School Chinese program,” noted Mr. Wang. “Words about Chinese family members are very difficult for American students to learn. But by learning this song, the girls learned these words very fast.”

Mr. Wang also employs a method called “pinyin,” in which Chinese phrases are spelled out phonetically using letters from the English alphabet. For example, 学习中文 in Mandarin is represented as “xué xí zhōng wén” in pinyin, which literally translates into “learning Mandarin.”

Through hard work, real-world connections and lively songs, Mr. Wang’s students are well on their way to becoming global citizens and joining the 955 million people worldwide who speak Mandarin.