Chinese class popular with CVU students (10/1/09)

Oct. 1, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

“Ni hao.”

The words mean “hello” in Chinese, and it’s one of the first phrases learned by Champlain Valley Union High School students taking the new Mandarin Chinese language course offered this semester.


    Observer photo by Tim Simard
Champlain Valley Union High School’s Mandarin Chinese teacher, Xue Zhenyan Li (center), helps prepare Chinese fried rice on Friday with Williston juniors Hayley Moon (left) and Morgan Doherty.

Chinese, a language a world apart from English — different alphabet, different grammatical structure—is proving to be an exciting challenge to the 40 or so students enrolled in the course. From an introduction into the tones and sounds of the language to learning how to correctly write Chinese characters, students have begun a crash course into a foreign world.

Those that were apprehensive about taking the high school’s newest course offering are no longer wary.

“This class is a lot more fun than I thought it would be,” said senior David Titus of Charlotte.

Last Friday, students learned how to cook an authentic and popular Chinese meal. In a hectic scene in one of CVU’s cooking labs, about 20 students kept busy making Chinese fried rice. There were smiles and laughter all around as the students — ranging from freshmen to seniors — fried eggs, boiled vegetables and cooked rice and chicken for the afternoon snack.

Xue Zhenyan Li, CVU’s part-time Chinese teacher, said mixing language and culture learning is essential for students to understand China. Integrating the subjects is perfect for American learners, she said.

“For me, American students learn very creatively compared to (students) in the China education system,” said Li, who was all smiles Friday afternoon as she helped her class prepare the dishes.

Li has plenty of experience in both education systems. A native of Sichuan Province in central China, Li earned her bachelor’s degree in 1994 at a Chinese university and taught English at a medical university in the country. In the early 2000s, she moved to the United States and earned her master’s degree in Alabama. Moving to Vermont two years ago, she took a job at the Vermont Commons School in South Burlington.

Students taking the course said they love the foreign feel the Chinese language class brings to CVU.

Charlotte junior Adam Struble said he’s taking the class because it’s such an interesting option at the high school.

“It’s an unusual language, and it’s different,” Struble said.

Williston junior Hayley Moon said she’s already taken “years of French” and wanted something different. So far, she loves the class.

“We’re going slow, so that helps,” Moon said.

Morgan Doherty, another Williston junior, said she wanted to take another language class after two years of Latin.

“I wasn’t taking a language that I’d be able to use in conversation,” Doherty said. “(Latin) is kind of a dead language.”

Fifty-six students are taking the class, which is split into two sections. Principal Sean McMannon said the Mandarin Chinese course proved so popular that 10 students had to be turned away.

Chinese language courses are also offered at the Burlington and Essex High Schools.

This semester, students are learning the basics of Chinese conversation and reading, as well as writing the calligraphy-based language, Li said. Students who choose to continue next semester with the intermediate course will begin honing their skills even more, Li added.

“Everyone is very interested, so far,” Li said of her class.

Many students were curious about China well before this class was offered, thanks in part to last summer’s Olympic Games. Nick Erly, a sophomore from Shelburne, visited the Chinese capital of Beijing last year. It was a culture shock traveling in the country, he said, and he wanted to learn even more about China and its language.

“I was able to see how fast China is growing,” Erly said. “Everything is so different there than here. (Beijing) is huge.”

Other students in the Chinese class have either traveled to China or know immediate family members who have. Olivia Cazayoux, a Charlotte sophomore, spent a semester at a school near Beijing two years ago. She became friends with many local families and picked up some of the language.

“I just loved the whole culture and being immersed in it,” Cazayoux said, adding that she plans to make a return trip.

Henry Reynolds, a Williston freshman, said he’s taking Mandarin Chinese because he wants to take a trip of his own in the next few years. He said his mother works for a local company that routinely sends her to China on business. He hopes to accompany her on one of her overseas ventures.

Christina Parker, a senior from Shelburne, said learning Mandarin Chinese will be essential for her preferred career path.

“I want to be a translator,” said Parker, who already has a working knowledge of French and Spanish.

Charlotte sophomore Nathan Hull is also looking ahead to a global career path, perhaps in the business sector. Learning Chinese may help with whatever he decides to do, he said.

“This would help you, at least, communicate with other cultures,” Hull said.