When learning a new language, communication is key.
That’s why the first lessons taught by Chinese teachers Zhang Hao Cai and Shi Hui were centered around teaching their students how to say “hello.”
By this point in the semester, students at both North Side Elementary School and Liberty Bell Middle School not only know how to speak some simple Chinese but they can also construct sentences using Chinese characters.
“Every student at North Side can say hello in Chinese now. It’s amazing,” Zhang said.
Zhang and Shi are in their first year of teaching Chinese to students in Johnson City as part of a partnership between the system and The Confucius Institute, a nonprofit, public institute with the goal of promoting Chinese language and culture, and supporting local Chinese teaching internationally through affiliated institutes around the world.
The Johnson City school system became one of those affiliated networks at the beginning of this school year after the Board of Education approved the partnership.
Both Greeneville and Bristol city schools have utilized the institute’s teachers in the past.
Other than a Chinese course offered at the high school level through dual-enrollment, this is the first time Johnson City has had dedicated Chinese teachers in the system.
Students at North Side have Chinese class three times a week, while students at Liberty Bell take it as an elective course.
Zhang, who teaches at North Side, and Shi, who teaches at Liberty Bell, couldn’t be happier to be a part of the Johnson City family, and their students are just as excited to be learning about a new culture.
“They are crazy about many things. They are crazy about kung-fu and Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, and now they write very good Chinese characters. They are also crazy about pandas in China,” Shi said of her students.
Zhang agreed, saying she was surprised at how quickly the students have embraced her lessons.
“They are very excited about Chinese culture and the comparisons of culture of the two countries — comparisons of eastern countries from western countries — so they are crazy about that,” she said. “Our principal told me that they went to a Chinese restaurant and they used chopsticks instead of fork and knives. That’s amazing. They are so little, and they can learn so much things now.”
The Chinese lessons consist of teaching how to write and speak the language, as well as learning about the culture and history through traditional songs or arts and crafts.
“Our language is not easy to learn and the culture, you know, China has 5,000 years of civilization so it’s not easy for them to learn in one semester, so we have a lot of things to teach,” Zhang said.
With the world becoming a smaller place, both teachers said there’s a greater level of cross-cultural learning that’s needed now than there ever has been in the past.
“Now it’s an international world, so in China almost every student in school learns English and learn more about western culture. I think the kids in America, in our school, have the same right to learn other things, to learn Chinese culture, and to learn other cultures,” Zhang said.
Shi said the older students at Liberty Bell want to excel in her class because they enjoy the challenge of learning a new language.
“A foreign language is really difficult for a foreigner to learn, just like for me and English, so the students like the challenges. They want to challenge themselves successfully. They’re eager to know the other side and the other countries,” she said.