Chinese instructors teach language to area youth

[Source]     [Time]    2009-10-09 09:26:19 

LAS CRUCES — "Pay attention to the tone," said Mingna Li, one of four teachers who have come across the world to teach Chinese this year in a Las Cruces classroom.

Though only a few weeks into the Chinese language class, her six students at Alma d’Arte Charter High School all showed how far they’ve come, holding up the correct flash card with the Chinese symbol for "woman."

For the second year, the Confucius Institute at New Mexico State University has brought language teachers from China to teach at local schools, as part of an exchange agreement with the Shijiazhuang Language and Culture Exchange College, in Hebei Province.

"The hardest part is remembering the tones. They give out cards for us to memorize (the characters)," said junior Josh Hinte. "It’s a lot funner than I thought it would be. Other aspects are a lot harder. But Chinese is a fun language to learn."

Joey Padilla is the only student taking the advanced Chinese class, having taken beginning Chinese last year.

"I really like the fact that Chinese is very logical. It makes a lot more sense in some ways than English. Chinese follows a very straight line of logic," he said. "Learning Chinese has helped me to realize China is a rising force in the world and how we really have to pay attention to it."

This exchange program, and the placement of Chinese teachers in Las Cruces schools, was initiated by Ken and Elvira Hammond, professors of Chinese history at NMSU.

In August 2007, the Hammonds established NMSU’s Confucius Institute, in an effort to further understanding of China and its language and culture.

Since the spring of 2008, the institute has placed language teachers from China in three elementary schools and Alma d’Arte charter high school. The cost of the program is covered by the Chinese Ministry of Education.

This year, Li and fellow teacher Zheng Xing teach at Alma, while teachers Qian Luo and Junna Liu move through the week to Tombaugh, Desert Hills and Hillrise elementary schools.

In addition to learning Mandarin-Chinese language and writing, Hammond said teachers incorporate traditional stories and aspects of Chinese culture and history.

"It’s as much about learning the culture as it is learning the language," Elvira Hammond said.

Unlike Spanish, German and French, which can sound familiar due to sharing similar Latin-based roots, everything about Chinese is foreign, Hammond said

A single word can have three or four completely different meanings, based on only a slight change in tone. And Chinese characters are learned by memorization. But she said the students seem do well in learning it.

"The kids, especially the younger ones, soak up the language like a sponge. It’s a tonal language, and we have found kids really do pick it up very well," Hammond said."Our goal is to have all of our teachers teaching in Chinese 100 percent of the time by three-quarters of the way through the year."

The classes can result in lessons for the teachers as well.

Hammond said even though most of them have studied English for years, they sometimes struggle understanding it in informal settings. That can be compounded by the additional presence of Spanish words and names.

Xing and Li said they watched President Obama’s recent speech to school kids, which they discussed with their students.

"Education is so important. Whoever is your president or your chairman, education is very important to every kid. I told them they should cherish the opportunities," Xing said.

"Especially in China, and especially in the rural areas," Li said. "Girls don’t always have the opportunity to enter school. Students here are very lucky, and they should cherish the opportunity."

Hammond said she always knew the program would work if given a chance.

"I think I always knew the teachers would be dedicated and that the kids would be receptive. What has surprised and pleased me is how receptive principals and the schools have been, and how they have welcomed our teachers into the community, and that China is part of our present and a part of our future," Hammond said.

Alma d’Arte co-founder Irene Oliver-Lewis said her school would like to build on the Chinese program, possibly with a student exchange of some sort.

"It’s a commitment we’re making, because we feel Chinese is going to be a 21st century language," said Oliver-Lewis, who has spent time in Japan and Korea.

Christopher Schurtz can be reached at; (575) 541-5431

Mingna Li teaches the Chinese langauge Thursday to Alma d’Arte... (Sun-News photo by Norm Dettlaff)