Cheshire to China

21st November 2003 at 00:00
Lessons in Mandarin meant students from Runcorn could share both a science project and social life in Anhui Province.

Debbie Burke explains

We started talking about teaching Mandarin Chinese four years ago when St Chad's, Runcorn, where I am head of languages, decided to submit a bid for language college status. We were drawn to China because of its "open-door" policy and improved economic, cultural and sporting links with the West.

At about that time, Halton Borough Council established a link with Tongling in Anhui province and we became involved in town-twinning activities in 2000, the year before we gained language college status.

Mandarin Chinese is now taught to all our Year 7 pupils as an enrichment activity. The lessons include basic language, exploring the culture of China and activities such as calligraphy and face-painting for the Beijing Opera. A group of Year 8 gifted and talented pupils are continuing their studies in an after-school club and this will lead to accreditation in key stage 4. We are exploring the possibility of offering GCSE.

Headteacher Arthur Graley and I first forged links with Tongling No 3 High School during an exploratory visit in 2001. It was there that the idea of taking a group of St Chad's pupils on a visit was born and preparation began in March 2002. The project was part of a number of activities to improve understanding between English and Chinese students.

The study involved a comparison between industry in Tongling and Halton and research into biodiversity in China. The pupils selected were among the most able of the GCSE biology students in the year group and they were all competent linguists. We also knew they had the necessary confidence and commitment to take part in a challenging programme.

All staff and students involved in the programme attended weekly Mandarin Chinese lessons before the visit. The emphasis was on being able to function in everyday situations, so the course focused on topics such as formal and informal greetings, politeness, food and drink. The course was taught by Lin Li, our Chinese assistant in 20023, who is from Tongling.

Li says: "I gave the students a brief introduction to China. I talked about its location , size, population, important cities and places of interest. I mentioned why China has a one-child policy. I showed them how to do some Chinese writing. I told them how Chinese people celebrate the New Year and the traditional customs. Chinese New Year in China is as important as Christmas Day here. I also told them something about Tongling city and the students were most attentive."

Li then began work on language: "I taught them some simple Chinese phrases and sentences. For example, when people meet each other in China, they often say 'Ni Hao'. When they part, they may say 'Zai Jian', and 'Xie Xie'

is 'Thanks'. Students also learned how to ask the names, ages and nationalities of people and prices of goods." By the time they visited Tongling, students were equipped with some very easy Chinese which enabled them to talk with the Chinese students. Now some students are aiming to continue their studies next year.

Cultural aspects were important too. "I spent some time teaching them how to use chopsticks. After training they did it very well and when they had meals in China, they could all use chopsticks," says Li.

The students found learning the language demanding but stimulating. At the end of the course, they all felt confident enough to use the language they had learned in a real situation.

Two students are considering continuing their study of Chinese at university as a result of this experience.

We are delighted with the way our pupils responded so positively to the programme. The questions: "why China?" and "why study Mandarin Chinese?"

are answered by some of the students' comments:

"Entering Shanghai City was amazing. The image of China I had implanted on my mind of drowned fields and shanty towns with huts for houses was abolished. The skyscrapers were unbelievably tall and all the flashing lights and noises were slightly disorientating."

"Nothing could have fully prepared me for the welcome we received on arriving in Tongling, via an extremely long, scenic train journey. The children were so friendly and sincere. Everywhere we went in the school we were met with rapturous responses and an amount of respect and warmth unrivalled anywhere I have ever been in my life. The eagerness to learn and the diligence of the pupils was something so simple yet it had a profound effect on me."

"I visited a pupil's house for lunch. I had already met Xiao Rong when she came to Runcorn to spend a month in our school. Her mother had cooked us a banquet. We were greeted by her mother, father and their friend who was a headteacher in one of the local secondary schools. Rong is excellent at speaking English so she was the one who interpreted things for us. Rong was very kind when we were in China and she helped us a lot."

Their words bring to mind a Chinese saying we learned from Li Yuming, our first Chinese teacher in 20012002: "Travelling 10,000 li (5,000 kilometres) will teach you more than reading 10,000 books."

Debbie Burke is head of languages at St Chad's Catholic High School and Language College, Runcorn, Cheshire

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