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Students Plugged in to Learn Mandarin
“I don't want to say Chinese is a hard language. I just say: "You need time to learn this language,” said Shwu-Fen Lin, who uses an array of tools to enhance instruction and expand the classroom experience.

Chinese as a foreign language is clearly on the rise, but the question remains, can Americans actually learn such a difficult language? Some are skeptical, but Weefen Tsui, teacher of Mandarin at John Witherspoon Middle School, is ready to take on the challenge. Success, however, requires, among other things, extending the classroom experience through a targeted use of technology.

“To learn Chinese successfully, you have to train your own ear,” Tsui explained. “You cannot simply rely on your neighbor.” The tonal aspect is one of the reasons the Foreign Service Institute classifies Chinese as a Category III language (the most difficult to acquire).
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Angel Fan and Michael Moravcsik record dialogues in their Chinese III class.
Tones, of which Mandarin has four, distinguish the meaning of a word from other similar-sounding words. Recognizing those distinctions is crucial: It can make the difference between referring for instance, to your mother or to a horse. “This word is a great example of how important tone is in creating meaning,” noted Tsui.

In response to the challenge, Tsui has turned her teacher website into the hub of the virtual classroom outside of the daily 45 minutes of in-class time. To help her students learn tone, she relies, among other things, upon Vocaroo, an online program that allows users to make and send voice recordings, much like an audio e-mail.

As students move on to PHS, teacher Shwu-Fen Lin is ready with an array of tools to enhance instruction. Included in her repertoire are 30 iPods, which she uses as part of her assessment process.

As students progress, Lin also has them use flip camera to make video projects and record interviews. In order to give students first-hand exposure to the living language, she regularly includes video clips of Chinese news programs and other sources in her classroom instruction.

Expanding the classroom walls is necessary for many reasons, including the popularity of the language, with 29 students currently enrolled in Mandarin 1 and 35 in Mandarin 2.

That number is sure to grow as more students begin learning Chinese at a younger age. In addition to the middle and high school courses, a unique new after-school Chinese program was established at Community Park Elementary School this fall. The program, open to interested K-5 pupils at the school, blends Chinese instruction with afterschool activities.  

When those young learners move on to the high school, they will learn to input Pin Yin, the official system used to transcribe Chinese characters into Roman characters, so they can communicate electronically with Chinese speakers around the globe.

Lin hopes to have her high school students communicating directly with the Princeton program's partner school in Qindao. With teachers as intermediaries, students can contact each other through Skype and e-mail.

True success for Lin comes when she sees her students successfully applying what they learn as they venture into the world. “Success for me comes when they use Mandarin in the future after they leave school.” And that is something Lin feels confident they will do.

“I don't want to say Chinese is a hard language,” said Lin.  “I just say: 'You need time to learn this language.'”

This is apparently a lesson that her students have taken to heart. As just one indicator of their success and commitment to Chinese, all 10 students who took AP Chinese last year as well as seven this year scored a perfect 5.


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