By Education Gazette editors
Using Mandarin vocabulary in class and in a cultural context helps Cambridge students create a deeper understanding of the language.
Students studying Mandarin at Cambridge High School recently acted as haggling buyers and keen sellers in a food market during class. Paired off, they switched roles from buyer to seller, using the vocabulary of bargaining, cooking, ingredients and eating, as people do every day in China. The students enjoyed the theatre of it.
Their teacher, Paula Walsh, who is fluent in Mandarin and has lived in China, interacted amongst the students, fine tuning their pronunciation of words, encouraging new vocabulary use and making sure they speak with the correct tone, which is essential.
“Mandarin is a tonal language and a word can have multiple and very different meanings depending on the tone or inflection used by the speaker,” Paula says.
The bargaining scenario also helped the students absorb the everyday experience of shopping in China as part of their study of Chinese culture. At other times, the students prepare food, learn Pinyon and study characters.
Teacher fluency crucial
Noa Rahmani is a Year 9 student in the class. She is already bilingual in English and Hebrew but appreciates the gains she is making in Mandarin because her teacher is fluent.
“I am progressing faster than before. Paula uses a different approach – we are talking constantly in the class, and I prefer hands on, rather than book learning, as I can retain it more easily.
“In middle school language class,” she says, “we watched videos as our guide to pronunciation. That is not the same.”
Fellow student Cole Sherbourne has been studying the language for three years.
“I am now confident in my ability to converse in Mandarin. Our family had an exchange student from China earlier this year, so I was able to talk to him in Mandarin.”
English learning advantages
Noa says it’s helping her other studies, such as English.
“We need to understand Mandarin grammar, so we examine the rules of English grammar as part of that study.”
Seven schools in the area make up a language cluster, involving 632 students in 25 classes, an increase of almost 100 more than last year.
Paula Walsh teaches Mandarin at the middle school as well as the high school, and the junior students are taught by a Mandarin Language Assistant from China, Shen Ying, with support from classroom teachers.
Cambridge Primary School Principal Mike Pettit says there is strong parental and community support for the programme, but having fluent teachers is crucial.
At the middle school all the children learn Mandarin and, as at the other schools, teacher interaction is constant, with the children speaking the language regularly in classes. There is a co-teacher in the class of 60 and Paula oversees the teaching in small groups.
Paula encourages deep engagement, and tells the students to take their new vocabulary home to use it there. Recently, they learnt words related to cooking, such as ‘salty’ and ‘spicy’, ‘bitter’ and ‘sweet’. Children love food, so crackers and other foods are used as tools in class to stimulate the use of new vocabulary. Paula suggests that at home the children describe in Mandarin the flavours of meals their parents are making.
Relevancy promotes enthusiasm
Cambridge Middle School Principal Daryl Gibbs says the children are enthusiastic because the learning is relevant and goes beyond the basics such as numbers, shapes, courtesies and introduction.
“It’s authentic and contextual. They want to be able to hold conversations and use the language, and it is important there is a connection to real things in the real world.”
Daryl’s daughter Sophie, 9, is studying Mandarin and Daryl is also making an effort to learn it, along with many of the school’s teachers. “She corrected my pronunciation of ‘Ni hao’ because I wasn’t correct!” he says.
Sophie is also keen to apply her expertise to other languages. Daryl says, “When we were in Japan on holiday earlier this year, she asked me how she could order food in Japanese from the menu in a restaurant and she used the words to do that.”