In Janesville maybe you saw three teenagers yelling at the icy Rock River earlier this year in a language you did not understand. Their teacher Liming Khan can explain. “You use different muscles for speaking Chinese,” she said. “Yelling out helps train those muscles. It also helps you remember.” Khan knew what she was doing.
Three of her middle-school students won medals last month in a state Chinese language speech contest. Frank Breu, a seventh-grader from Edison Middle School, Alex Kestol, a seventh-grader from Marshall Middle School, and Casey Chen, an eighth-grader from Marshall, all made their teacher proud.
About 150 students competed in different categories at the event sponsored by the Wisconsin Association of Chinese Language Teachers.
“I told them that winning or losing is not important,” Khan said. “It is good experience for them. The process is more important than the result.”
Khan met the teens at the Hedberg Public Library every Saturday for two months to help them do well. Each had to memorize a short story and tell it in Chinese. They were rated on how well they learned the story, their fluency, demeanor and intonation. Two presented a traditional Chinese poem, while one told a fable. Part of their practice included shouting the stories at the river behind the library.
“Their teacher went the extra mile to help them succeed,” said Sylvia Andrus, Frank’s mother.
She encouraged her son to begin studying Chinese in fourth grade.
“It seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up,” she said. “The country is up and coming in importance. If he ever has to interact with someone from that part of the world, it will help him so much.”
Frank needed to be convinced at first to study one of the world’s hardest languages. But now he uses the word “fun” when talking about Chinese class.
“There are lots of jobs I could get if I learn Chinese,” he said. “I could go to China and teach Chinese.”
Alex also enjoys learning Chinese.
“My parents saw it as an incredible opportunity,” she said. “There are so many reasons to learn Chinese.”
Alex and Frank both competed with students who are not native speakers. Alex got a bronze medal and Frank got a silver one.
Casey came to the United States from China when she was a child and competed with other native speakers. She earned a silver medal.
“I watch TV in Chinese all the time,” she said. “My brother and I only listen to Chinese music and Chinese videos. I know how to speak Chinese fluently, but I don’t know how to read and write it.”
Khan, who is in her third year of teaching Mandarin Chinese in Janesville, has almost 100 middle-school students in classes and more online.
Many students find writing Chinese, which has a different character for every word, complicated and slow, she said. The language has more than 2,500 characters used in daily writing alone. Chinese also has five different tones, which give the same word five different meanings.
“For American people, this is hard to get,” said Khan, who is from China.
Superintendent Karen Schulte said the district’s goal is to prepare globally competent students.
“We know that the study of Chinese language and culture bridges the cultural gap, provides insight into people’s values and struggles and creates a platform for dialogue that is crucial for effective communication,” she said. “…Knowing two or more languages is an advantage not a burden.”
Learning Chinese is part of a bigger tie to China that the Janesville School District is nurturing. This summer, 40 Chinese students are scheduled to spend part of the summer in Janesville. They will attend a cultural and academic program with a like number of Janesville students.
Khan works diligently with her students because watching them speak Chinese makes her happy.
“It is satisfying to see their language skills grow,” she said.
For students who find their homework challenging, she offers a Chinese proverb:
“Difficult things will become easier, if you really put your heart into it.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.