Students are sitting in a circle, chanting sing-song syllables in Chinese, laughing and clapping. They’re playing a traditional Chinese game, led by several native speakers — their teachers.
It’s the start of a challenging four days: Nashville Chinese School’s inaugural Mandarin immersion camp.
These 14 students, their parents and Nashville Chinese School teachers are pioneers in a movement to bring an authentic East Asian experience to Middle Tennessee. For four days and three nights, these students have pledged to speak only Mandarin, practice traditional East Asian exercises and eat only Chinese meals, all while housed at Vanderbilt University.
This brand-new development is at the tipping point of a national trend. China’s economy, population and global influence are growing, and so is the study of Mandarin in Middle Tennessee and across the United States. The number of students taking the Advanced Placement Chinese exam, introduced in 2007, has risen steadily to more than 5,000, and the U.S. Department of State has cited Chinese as a language of critical need, offering scholarships and grants to students with a desire to learn.
In Middle Tennessee, Mandarin programs are also on the rise. Six private schools offer Chinese language courses, and in the last seven years, four Metro Nashville public schools and all three Metro magnet schools have established Mandarin programs.
Within the Hillsboro cluster, Eakin and Julia Green elementary schools, West End Middle School and, as of 2011, Hillsboro High School all offer Chinese language. With this most recent change, some students in the Hillsboro cluster will have an opportunity to learn the language from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Interest is on the rise in Williamson County, too. Just last week, the Williamson County Board of Education voted to bring two teachers from China to help chart the course for creating a Mandarin language program in partnership with the Confucius Institute at the University of Memphis.
Ping Shen Whittaker, a native Chinese speaker and Nashville resident since 1997, established the Hume-Fogg and Martin Luther King Jr. magnet high school programs in 2005. And while she is a heartfelt supporter of all language learning, she believes Chinese can play a pivotal role.
“Western Romance languages have existed in the school curriculum for a long time,” Whittaker said. “It’s a necessity in the 21st century to step up our Chinese programs because learning an Asian language opens the door to Asia for our students.”
Career and heritage
Hillsboro High School Executive Principal Terry Shrader agrees, adding that some students from Hillsboro have traveled to China through the school’s partnership with the Confucius Institute.
“Chinese language acquisition is a long and arduous process,” Shrader said. “Having the study of the language throughout our cluster will eventually allow students to pursue a career in this global economy.”
For some students, like Samantha Prebus, who attends Bellevue Middle and was adopted from China, it’s not a public or private school that provides her cultural education. Nashville Chinese School, a nonprofit founded in 1987 to promote Chinese culture and language, offers an affordable opportunity to connect with her heritage. She’s attending the immersion camp, and her parents say the school has become like family.
School Principal Irene Moser, a native speaker from Taiwan, is proud to see enrollment numbers increasing, with 110 students enrolled during the school year from across Middle Tennessee. While about half of NCS students come from Chinese heritage, the other half are simply interested students and families who see the benefits of learning the world’s most widely spoken language.
During the school year, students meet for three-hour classes every Saturday in one of two tracks: “Heritage,” for students whose parents actively speak Chinese at home, or “Chinese as a Second Language,” for others. Each semester costs $205 for a total of 42 hours of instruction — a price many parents are willing to pay. With an average of 11 students per class, Moser laughs, “our classes right now cost about five dollars an hour.”
Language instructors know that a true immersion experience is the best way to move students’ proficiency to the next level. But a trip to China is an 18-hour flight that costs thousands of dollars.
That’s why, bolstered by a crowd of dedicated teachers and supportive parents, Nashville Chinese School has transformed Vanderbilt’s Branscomb Quad into a sequestered Chinese cloister. Characters line the hallways with encouraging phrases like, “Whatever you say, make it positive!” and reminders to respect teachers and parents.
“Not every kid has the opportunity to travel,” Moser said. “You have to experience language and culture—it’s not something you can be taught in the classroom by a textbook. You need to smell, feel it and be surrounded by it.”