Language is a vital part of human connection that builds bridges of understanding and awareness. It is the cornerstone of culture and the jumping-off point for relationship development. From February 20 to May 22, CUSEF hosted a virtual Mandarin course for American students to hone their language skills and pick up a few new phrases along the way. Over twenty-two students representing seven historically black colleges and universities attended the course taught by Beijing Foreign Studies University on a weekly basis. To enhance the exchange experience, five Chinese student ambassadors attended the course and provided additional support to the students by reviewing the materials learned in smaller groups and practicing new communication techniques with them. Reid Chunn of Harris-Stowe State University said of his CUSEF Virtual Mandarin Course experience:
“The class progressed intuitively: starting with the alphabet, tones, grammar rules and sentence construction, moving on to conversational verbs; nouns; and quantifiers, then concluded with students’ intricate conversational skits as a final project - my group’s skit covered two friends shopping for a birthday gift, haggling the price, and presenting it at the birthday party. Each session contained illustration-supported presentations that helped us absorb the material. The mass of information provided was great, but the support and resources were even greater.”
Mandarin is considered to be one of the most difficult languages to learn. Though it is the most widely spoken native language in the world, it is challenging for English speakers for several reasons. Mainly, those familiar with the Latin alphabet often struggle with the thousands of special characters and Mandarin’s unique writing system, which is unlike anything in Latin-based languages. Additionally, the tonal nature of Mandarin Chinese is complicated. The four tones in the language indicate that one word can be pronounced four different ways, wherein each pronunciation has a distinct meaning. Depending on how you say it, the word ma can mean “mother,” “horse,” “rough,” or “scold.”
Tackling multiple challenges, starting with the fundamentals and advancing to more complex conversational skills, these students learned simple Chinese phrases, utilizing more than 150 commonly used words and 20 key grammar points that meet the basic linguistic level necessary for communication. “The Mandarin course has been a life-changing experience for me! It is the first time I thoroughly enjoyed learning a new language and about a new culture. The course was very systematic and professionally taught,” said Mandarin course student Miriam Williams of Morgan State University.
Students were asked to complete a presentation in Mandarin as their final project for the course. During the presentation, students introduced themselves, conducted the weather forecast, developed a travel itinerary for visiting China, and took fellow students on a tour of their home. Exercising a comprehensive understanding of Mandarin, students who excelled in the class were awarded special recognition for their hard work and diligence. One particular student, Keara Watkins of Clark Atlanta University, reflected on her time taking the course:
“My experience with this course and its instructors exceeded my expectations. Since day one, we students were met with enthusiasm and encouragement from our instructor and student ambassadors. The lessons and practice material were well-organized and presented to us in a way that was easy for English-speakers to understand. I began the class as a complete beginner to the Chinese language, but by the end of the 13-week course, I was able to speak about a variety of topics, read the pinyin writing system, and write several Chinese characters following the traditional stroke order. The course quickly and completely changed my misperception of how difficult Mandarin really is to learn, and has encouraged me to continue my studies even now that the class has ended.”
Overwhelming evidence supports the benefits of becoming bilingual. An intricate system made up of new structures, rules, and lexis, forms when learning another language. It allows the brain to absorb new patterns, which help develop key learning skills, including cognitive thinking and problem-solving. Not only does it sharpen the mind, but it also improves memory and enhances decision-making. Studying a new language requires the ability to recall and apply familiarity with vocabulary and rules. According to a study from Pennsylvania State University, people who are multilingual and proficient at oscillating between one language system and another are better multitaskers than their monolingual counterparts, thanks to the constant back-and-forth workout their brain practices.
Overall, CUSEF’s Mandarin course was a success! After persistent effort and real-life application, these students now possess the ability to delve deeper into their Chinese language studies.