Mandarin Language Class at Trinity-Pawling School, Pawling
One of the Valley's top educational programs in 2014
Photograph courtesy of the Trinity-Pawling School
In today’s world, students no longer automatically consider the old standbys — French and Spanish — when it comes to learning a second language. For the past five years, the Trinity-Pawling School, like a growing number of institutions both locally and nationwide, has joined the educational cutting edge with its course in Mandarin Chinese language and cultural studies.
Amber West heads the program at the grade nine-to-12 boys school in Pawling. “This year, we have about 15 students, and some years the number goes up to about 20,” says West, who majored in Chinese and political science at Middlebury College in Vermont. “In college, I spent a semester abroad in Hangzhou, China, and when I got back, I knew I wanted to teach the language.” West also took part in a language teachers’ immersion course in China, and volunteered with the U.S. Olympic Committee at the Beijing Olympics.
“Learning Chinese is so different from Romance languages like Spanish and French,” and not just because of the difference in the written characters and sounds, West says. “It’s an old language — there’s so much history involved, and the culture plays into the language, too. When you understand a bit about the culture, you also know how to use the language more clearly.”
The Trinity-Pawling Mandarin program got off the ground after the father of an alumnus from mainland China offered to donate funds to support a Chinese language and culture program at the school. Classes meet for four 50-minute sessions a week, and focus on listening, reading, writing, and speaking. The school utilizes pinyin, the spelling and phonetic system used to transcribe Chinese sounds into the Latin alphabet. A student can, for instance, type the English sound pronounced “ni” or “nee” — for the Chinese word meaning “you” — into a computer that’s programmed for Chinese transcription, and the Chinese character will pop up on the screen. “This helps the students learn, and allows them to do things like type into a computer or text on a cell phone,” West notes. Mandarin also uses four nuances in sound, known as tones, to clarify the meanings of words; since many Chinese characters have the same sound, tones, context, and written characters are necessary to differentiate words and meaning.
If it all sounds a bit complicated, it is; West estimates it would take the average person “maybe four to five years of intensive learning, including time abroad” to become fairly fluent in Mandarin.
Students are drawn to learn Chinese for several reasons. A background in the language can be a plus on college applications and, eventually, in the marketplace. “Some kids know when they first start studying Mandarin that they want to major in business or engineering or science; they know it’s important to master the language,” says West. “Some are prepping for college. And some are dabbling: they’re curious.” Some students also want to be able to communicate with the growing number of Chinese immigrants in the U.S., she says.
Although it doesn’t offer a full-semester exchange program, Trinity-Pawling has had a reciprocal visiting arrangement with St. Paul’s College, a boys school in Hong Kong, since 2009. Last year, nine Trinity-Pawling students and staffers went abroad to attend classes at St. Paul’s, stay with host families, and absorb the culture.
The launch of its Chinese language program fits right in with the rest of Trinity-Pawling’s curriculum, says West. “The school has courses in international relations, Asian civilization; and the ninth and 10th graders study world history, too. So students are getting exposure to the Chinese culture in other classes even if they don’t take the language. That’s so important, because the world has gotten smaller. We’re all part of the global community now.”