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Innovative Camp Uses Sports, Activities to Teach Mandarin to Teens

  • Heidi Chang

As China continues to rise as a global power, interest in learning Chinese has been increasing dramatically in the United States. To help meet that demand, the Confucius Institute at the University of Hawaii has been developing language classes for young people and adults and some programs that take an unusual approach to learning. Now in its second year, the institute is getting national recognition for creating the country's first Chinese Language Immersion Sports Camp.

You may not think you can learn Chinese by playing pingpong, but the young people who've come from around the country to spend three weeks here are discovering they can, and it's fun.

Students have variety of reasons for coming to camp

High school senior Raphael Leonard is here because he'd like to go into business in China someday.

"Even if they can speak English," he points out, "It's helpful to be able to speak Chinese, so that you can relate to them more when you're trying to find out about their company and their goals for the future and how they're trying to improve their stock."

Leonard isn't alone. Elaine Guo also thinks learning Chinese may someday help her in her career. The 17-year-old from Pennsylvania also wants to connect with her heritage. Her parents are Chinese.

"When I was at home, I listened to them. Sometimes they talk in Chinese, and I start to think, 'You know what? I think Chinese is really cool, and I want to learn how to speak Chinese fluently.' And that's why I'm here."

She and the other students here are not learning Chinese by memorizing words in a book, the typical approach in most language classes. The idea behind the sports camp is that learning a language should be fun and part of the students' daily activities, whether they're playing pingpong, doing calligraphy, hiking or talking in class about everyday things.

But even if it's fun, learning Chinese can be a challenge.

"It's hard," admits Avery Ashwill, 14, of Texas. "I've been taking Spanish since I was in kindergarten, so I speak pretty good Spanish, and it came naturally to me, but Chinese is really completely different. It didn't come naturally.

"It's really different than English," she adds with a laugh.

Growing demand for Chinese speakers and teachers

Approximately every fifth person in the world speaks some sort of Chinese, and most people who speak Chinese speak Mandarin, says camp director Cyndy Ning. She is the co-director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Hawaii and also the executive director of the Chinese Language Teachers Association.

Ning says she's seeing a huge demand for Chinese language programs and teachers in American schools. So teachers are invited to the camp to sharpen their classroom skills and learn how to incorporate activities into their lessons.

Ning says using sports is a unique approach to teaching Chinese language and culture.

"People think of learning a language as a very intellectual thing, and sports is a very physical thing. And often they don't go together," she says.

But she points out that learning a language is not just intellectual.

"It involves experience. It involves movement. It involves tasting. It involves hearing. It involves many other things than just thinking. And one reason why we have the sports camp is to drive home that idea, that language learning happens in life, and it involves the whole person."

Adapting approach to sports to learning language

Just as with sports, where players warm up before competition, campers warm up their tongues and ears before activities with the Chinese custom of standing up, greeting the teacher and bowing. Ning explains that also gets the students into a more "Chinese frame of mind."

One of the last activities of the day is a session of Chinese martial arts, known as Wushu. Hunter Kay says that's his favorite part of camp because it's spiritual.

"With each move I execute, I can feel energy flowing through me, but also when the teacher's speaking to me in Chinese, like, I actually feel like I'm in China, almost," Kay says.

These students and teachers realize that it's impossible to become fluent in a foreign language in just three weeks. But by participating in the Chinese Language Immersion Sports Camp, they've made a good start, and they're having a lot of fun in the process.

Many say the experience also has inspired them to learn more about Chinese culture. And, in keeping with custom, at the end of each class, the campers thank their teacher and say goodbye, just as students do in China.
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