In 2011, Ross School initiated a program in which all students, grades kindergarten through 12, learn Mandarin Chinese. In the past two years, the School’s unique approach to teaching the Chinese dialect along with Chinese history and culture has proved successful. Students are excelling and enjoy their experiences. Teachers are satisfied with the progress and pleased to play a valuable role in preparing the Ross classes for a future that will likely be enhanced by a proficiency in Mandarin.
Overall, the program is designed to help students become effective communicators and critical thinkers in Mandarin. Learning experiences are built around practical communication skills and current events, social issues, history, and Chinese literature, art, and media. As a global community, students also share cultural experiences with the many native-Mandarin-speaking students on campus and in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes.
Grades K–6 study Mandarin three times per week. The theme-based classes relate to students’ own lives. For example, they first learn the basics—such as how to express their name in Mandarin, days of the week and months, weather, greetings, food, and of course, animals.
Kera Shen, Mandarin teacher at Ross Lower School, teaches her students in progressive stages. “It’s like scaffolding,” she explains. “Each layer adds to their vocabulary, sentences, writing and understanding of the characters, and most important, their ability to communicate and carry on a conversation in Mandarin Chinese.”
For the most part, the students are excited to learn something so dramatically new, but there can be moments when learning such a difficult dialect can be a bit intimidating. Kera, a native of Taiwan, shares with students her own experiences with English at the age of 10: “I tell them about my own struggles and triumphs and sometimes frustrations with learning a foreign language. It helps that I can relate to their specific concerns and show them that success is possible.”
Students also learn about Chinese art, culture, and celebrations, studying shadow puppets, fans, paintings, Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival, and traditional Chinese opera and masks. The younger grades do a lot of singing and chanting, which exposes them to the rhythm of the Chinese language. They also learn popular Chinese childhood songs such as “我的朋友在哪里” (“Where Are My Friends”) and “阳光和小雨” (“Sunshine and the Rain”). “My students were singing the song during recess one day, and it was such a beautiful experience for me. I’m so proud of them and all they have accomplished,” Kera says.
At Ross Upper School, the Mandarin program also focuses on expanding students’ understanding of the dialect and their ability to communicate in both written and spoken word alongside studies of Chinese culture.
“The best part about learning Mandarin at Ross is the opportunity to use the language so often, both in the classroom and in other environments. Having such a large body of native Mandarin speakers at the school makes the subject applicable to our own lives and more prevalent than another language would be,” said sophomore Katie Morgan.
Mandarin teacher Levi Stribling says the ability to speak Mandarin Chinese is key for students as they advance through their lives and careers. “China is likely the fastest growing society in modern history,” he says, “and Mandarin Chinese will be essential to communicating in the new global economy.”
The goal is eventually to have all Ross students fluent in the Mandarin dialect by graduation, and teachers say the program is on track to achieve this goal within the next few years. “This is not like learning a Romance language. It takes an enormous amount of time and repetition, but it is possible. I’ve been impressed with the level of interest and enthusiasm I see in the classrooms,” Levi says.
Grades 7–8 begin with a review or introduction to the basics and continue to add skills in speaking, pronunciation, emotion, sentence structure and composition, and writing as they progress through grade 12. “It’s important to give them a foundation and continue to repeat it before you jump into learning Mandarin, because it is so different. We start with topics such as the origin of the characters, the cultural significance of the dialect, and geography,” says Mandarin teacher Amber Wang.
In all classes, teachers encourage students to use body language to express a thought if they cannot yet say it in Chinese. “When they do learn the Mandarin term, they now have an association with a picture or image rather than a word in English. It’s an important step in the learning process,” says Ou Wang, a Mandarin teacher at the Upper School.
The Mandarin curriculum dovetails with the Ross experience throughout the grade levels, specifically integrating studies of Chinese culture with each unit. Ou says the Ross School’s buildings, artwork and artifacts, and Eastern-inspired décor provide an inspiring backdrop for learning the language. “Mandarin Chinese is a diverse language, so you really have to be immersed in many aspects to gain a true understanding and proficiency,” she notes, adding, “Ross School certainly provides the ideal environment to make learning successful.”
Much of that success also involves a personal journey for the students. “Mandarin cannot be viewed as any other language. It purely derives from primitive drawings that with culture and imagination came together to form a country’s form of communication. When I view characters, I merely see drawings, not words or letters. They become a visual interpretation of their meaning, giving a new perspective to language itself. This is why I find Mandarin to be so important,” says eighth grader Marcos Marsans.
Some students mark their progress by accomplishing “simple” tasks like ordering in Mandarin at a Chinese restaurant, while others look forward to traveling to China to interact at a personal level with the culture and people. “You can’t teach experience, but you can prepare them and give them the confidence in the ability to communicate and express themselves,” Levi says.
The hope is that upon graduation, the students will continue to enrich their lives with studies in Mandarin and Chinese culture. “It’s a complex and beautiful dialect, and we are certainly well prepared to help all Ross students achieve the gift of fluency in Mandarin,” Ou says. “If they stay with it beyond high school, it can open them up to so many things—new business, travels, cultures, and personal adventure.”