JOPLIN, Mo. —
Casual greetings, a self-introduction and phrases about her favorite food seem to roll off Jasmine Butcher’s tongue in Chinese just as easily as if she were speaking her native English.
“I really love it,” said the freshman at Thomas Jefferson Independent Day School. “With all the tones and characters, it seems to have more emotion in it.”
Jasmine is part of a growing program at the Joplin school that has added Chinese to the list of languages available for its students to study. It has grown so much since instructor Fei Gao began it four years ago that several students competed last weekend in the final round of the Kansas City Chinese Speech Contest, in which they prepared and recited — from memory — a speech in Chinese in front of a panel of judges.
The Chinese program is now a mandatory part of the curriculum for fifth- and sixth-graders at Thomas Jefferson and is offered as an elective for high school students. Other languages including Spanish, French and Latin are also mandatory for certain grades at the elementary and middle school levels and are available to high school students.
Gao’s students are mostly enthusiastic about tackling Chinese, but she acknowledges that it can be a challenge. Younger students start primarily with pinyin, the phonetic transcription of the pronunciation of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet. Older students begin learning the characters and how to put them together to form sentences.
“It’s a totally different language from what they’ve learned so far,” Gao said. “It can be overwhelming.”
Gao, who also teaches her classes about Chinese culture, foods, manners and customs, said she hopes students will begin to think about the world around them.
“My job is really to plant a seed in their heart so they will have an open mind to treat this part of the world in a different way rather than (the way it is portrayed) in the media or books,” she said. “I think it’s important for them to want to understand another language and culture.”
Freshman Hannah Mueller is pursuing Chinese as an elective and is now in her fourth year of learning the language. She said it’s relatively easy for her, consisting largely of memorization of the characters.
“Most languages don’t have characters to symbolize words, and I think it’s really interesting,” she said.
Sixth-grader Bella Scutti said she is enjoying her first year of Chinese class, rattling off a list of vocabulary words she already has learned.
“We’ve learned how to count, and we’ve learned some of the letters and different tones,” she said. “We’ve learned (words for) family members and different animals. We learned how to say ‘hi’ and ‘goodbye’ and ‘sorry’ and ‘you’re welcome.’ It’s fun to know a new language.”
What draws sixth-grader Savannah Dillard’s interest is the fact that Chinese — unlike languages such as Latin and French — did not influence the development of the English language.
“The Chinese language is just so fascinating to me,” she said. “It’s so different from anything else I’ve learned.”