Ever thought about spending your summer learning Chinese?
That’s exactly what Will Sitz and Noah Szumski are doing. Each week, the two Pendleton 15-year-olds meet their teacher, Esther Su, at the Blue Mountain Community College student union to practice one of the most complex languages on the planet. On Thursday, the boys focused on Su as she lifted a bottle of water and said, “Shway.”
“Shway,” they repeated.
“Yes, good,” Su enthused in heavily-accented English.
A third student, Harmony Talbott, 10, also chimed in. She is part of a homeschool group that meets a private Pendleton home with Su — Harmony’s older sister is also part of the class. This day, Harmony wanted some extra practice.
Soon, the trio had demonstrated they could say water, orange juice, milk and soda in Chinese and could match each beverage to flashcards of Chinese characters. Next the students took turns role-playing as waiters or customers in a restaurant.
Noah, Will and Harmony are part of a growing group of Westerners studying Mandarin.
Neil Kubler, professor of Asian studies at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., said the number of students studying Mandarin in the United States more than doubled since about 2005.
Approximately 300,000 people are tackling Mandarin, a language that involves mastering subtle differences in intonation and learning thousands of complicated characters.
Kubler enrolled in Chinese as a freshman at Cornell and got hooked. He spent 11 years at the U.S. State Department.
“In America, Chinese used to be considered a language worth learning because it would help you find out about China's past — it was a language for looking back to the glories of the Chinese history, Chinese philosophy, and Chinese art and literature and all that,” Kubler said. “But those times have passed. Now, Chinese is looked at as a key to the future.”
For American kids, he said, “learning Chinese is cool.”
That seems to be the case with Will, Noah and Harmony, who find the culture interesting and hope to travel to China one day.
“I like Asian-style stuff,” Harmony said. “I love drawing Japanese and Chinese characters.”
Though the language includes thousands of characters, Will said it isn’t as daunting as one might think.
“Chinese characters are always based on the pictures of what they symbolize,” he said. “That makes it easier.”
Spanish is still easily the most popular choice by American language learners. According to the Modern Language Association, about 865,000 college students study Spanish while 61,000 pursue Mandarin. But, Mandarin is gaining.
“Chinese is growing by leaps and bounds,” said Rosemary Feal, the executive director of the Modern Language Association. “It’s now the seventh most commonly studied language in colleges and universities in the country — that’s quite a big jump.”
The reasons for choosing Chinese vary. After Carol Boag and her husband adopted two girls from China, they heard Su had started teaching a group of homeschool kids earlier this year. The Boag girls, Kylee and Kaila, 6 and 5, started attending.
“It helps connect the girls with their heritage,” Carol Boag said.
Su knows firsthand the challenges of learning a new language. The Taiwan native moved to Houston with her husband, daughter and son in 2000, but lived in Chinatown, where she didn’t need to know English. When the family moved to Eastern Oregon five years ago, it was a different story. Su enrolled in English at BMCC.
Earlier this year, she felt confident enough to teach Mandarin Chinese. If she falters in her English, her 13-year-old daughter Joyce Chen, Su’s summer assistant, translates. Su said she tailors the lessons to the students.
“Each kid is different,” Su said.
They use all-Mandarin textbooks and DVDs. Every week, Su telephones about half her students to converse in Mandarin and Joyce calls the rest.
During Thursday’s session in the student union, Harmony’s mom, Glory Talbott, cross-stitched at a nearby table. Talbott marveled at how easily Su engaged her students.
“She’s a natural,” Talbott said. “She makes it fun.”
Will and Noah agreed. They plan to continue despite the fact that some of their friends are mystified about why they chose Mandarin.
“They think it’s pretty weird,” Will said.
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0810.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.