Skip to main content

Students dip into Chinese language, culture

July 28, 2009


(Translation: High school students Chinese language and culture summer camp)

The Chinese language is one of the four most difficult languages in the world to master, according to The Defense Language Institute (the others are Arabic, Japanese and Korean).

Not only are there more than 3,000 characters to learn, Chinese is a “tone” language, where one syllable can mean different things, depending on which tone is pronounced, explained Xia Zhang, a senior lecturer in the School of International Letters and Cultures in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “And Mandarin Chinese, which the students are learning here, has four tones.”

Adding to the difficulty, Chinese scripts are very different from their pronunciation, Zhang added. “Students have to learn two sets of systems, one for pronunciation, which is called Pinyin, and the other the Chinese characters.”

If Chinese is such a complicated language to learn, why were 29 high school students so eager to spend 15 days at Arizona State University last month being introduced to the Chinese language and culture, instead of working at a part-time job, or loafing the summer away?

Natalie Lewis, who will be a senior at Westwood High School in Mesa, said she decided to use part of her summer vacation learning Chinese because she hopes to teach English in China some day.

Thomas Liu, a senior at McClintock High School in Tempe, has four grandparents in China. “I would like to be able to converse more easily with them when I visits them with my parents,” he said.

Pablo Pena, a senior at Dobson High School, had a simple explanation. “I’m interested in the Chinese language and culture,” he said.

All three were part of STARTALK, a program funded by the National Security Initiative that provides summer programs in critical-need languages for K-12 teachers and students.

The STARTALK students lived in Hassayampa Academic Village and spent their days and evenings “thinking Chinese.”

Language classes were offered in the morning, while afternoons were dedicated to Chinese culture – dance, calligraphy, drawing, martial arts, history and religion, geography, arts and crafts – and even Chinese knots.

“When feasible, the activities were hands-on,” said Zhang, who serves as a program director for STARTALK along with Madeline Spring, an ASU professor of Chinese who directs the ASU Confucius Institute and Chinese Language Flagship Partner Program.

This year's Chinese language camp, which was the first for students at ASU, accepted its 29 students from more than 40 applicants with language backgrounds ranging from little to no knowledge of Chinese to learners with up to 16 years of prior exposure and experience, said Fannie Tam, assistant director of outreach for the ASU Confucius Institute.

The three-hour classes, held six days a week, were divided into three levels, with specific objectives for each level.

The first group was for students with no prior knowledge of Chinese. “We hoped to establish a foundation for them,” Zhang said.

The second group was for students who have studied Chinese in high school, and could read and write some Chinese. “We hoped to solidify what they have learned and introduce new topics,” Zhang said.

The third level was for “heritage” students, who were born to native speakers of Chinese. “These are the kids who can speak and understand spoken Chinese. We worked on reading and writing with them.”

To make every minute count, the students in levels two and three were assigned to mentor those in levels one and two, while students in level three worked with those in level two. And, “we paired students in the dorms with mentors, depending on their language level,” Zhang said.

Evenings and weekends included recreation and social activities, all with a Chinese twist. The students watched films in Chinese, did research on various topics, and even cooked Chinese food together.

Though 15 days of Chinese immersion won’t create fluent speakers  – it takes the average person 1,320 hours to reach limited working proficiency in Chinese compared with 480 hours in Spanish and French – the STARTALK staff hopes it will be a foundation for their future study of Chinese, possibly at ASU.

They might apply to be an ASU Collegiate Scholar, and earn university credit while they are still in high school. They might attend heritage classes on Saturdays at ASU through the Contemporary Chinese School of Arizona offered in partnership with ASU Confucius Institute. Or, they might enroll at ASU as freshmen to continue their work.

“Our main goal is to increase students’ motivation to learn about Chinese language and culture,” Zhang said.

Additional financial support for STARTALK came from the ASU Chinese Language Flagship Partner program and the ASU Confucius Institute.

The Language Flagship is a national effort to change the way Americans learn languages. It offers language programs at schools across the United States for students from kindergarten to college. ASU’s is one of 23 Flagship centers and programs at institutions of higher learning.