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An emerging culture comes to class

One exercise during Central High School's Mandarin Chinese class Monday involved a "telephone" competition. Teacher Liu Lianhai showed flashcards to two students, who traced with fingers the word onto the palms of neighboring students, who passed...

Mandarin language teacher
To help students become familiar with new Chinese words, Central High School language teacher Liu Lianhai not only repeats the words for "dog" and "cat" out loud, but he uses hand gestures to make associations between the word and the images. The students were asked to do the same as they said the words. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

One exercise during Central High School's Mandarin Chinese class Monday involved a "telephone" competition.

Teacher Liu Lianhai showed flashcards to two students, who traced with fingers the word onto the palms of neighboring students, who passed it on. The students quickly drew the characters for their words, announcing "xiao" for small and "da" for big when they got to the end.

"We're very active (in this class)," Lianhai said.

In its third year of offering Mandarin, the Duluth school district has 39 students enrolled between Central and East.

"We don't have French anymore, but we have Chinese," said Central senior Sarah Fleissner, a third-year Mandarin student. "We're becoming more and more involved with China. It could help me get a good job."

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The teacher is in Duluth almost by luck.

Lianhai is from the Guangdong province of China, where he taught at a middle school and a university for the past 10 years, teaching modern and ancient Chinese. He trained with a group of 130 Chinese teachers to come to the U.S. in a program arranged through the Institute of International Education, among other entities.

Duluth's former teacher of Mandarin resigned last year, and normally the process of getting a new teacher through Lianhai's program takes a year, said Ed Crawford, co-principal at East.

But the school district where Lianhai was assigned had changed its mind, and Duluth was able to hire him right away.

Lianhai is living with Crawford for the time being. He's here on a year-long appointment, but his contract is renewable. The Chinese government paid his way here and it pays part of his salary.

Duluth has bigger Spanish and German programs, but Mandarin is growing, Crawford said.

"It's a great opportunity for our students," he said. "It's more than introducing a language; it's introducing a culture."

Fleissner plans to major in international business and minor in Chinese in college next year.

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"When you first start out it's really confusing, but once you've been in it a while it's easy to start learning the characters," she said.

The class at Central teaches to three levels. Lianhai deals with that by using different textbooks for each level and asking students questions based on their experience. During class on Monday he mimed words and had students do the same, along with chanting words after him, and drawing characters 10 consecutive times.

"If you don't use body language, kids become inactive," Lianhai said, when asked about his teaching style.

His training involved learning about American students and culture. He had heard Mandarin was difficult for students in the western part of the world, but he hasn't found it to be, so far.

"When I speak, they follow me," he said. "If they can follow me, it's not difficult."

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