“Wo jiao Mike,” said the instructor to the slightly puzzled Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake students.
Instructor Mike O’Shea pointed to himself and repeated the phrase, which means “My name is Mike” in Chinese.
It took the students a little while to get the hang of the new language, but then they went around the room saying “Wo jiao” followed by their name.
O’Shea reassured the students participating in the seven-week afterschool program that Mandarin Chinese is not as difficult to learn as it would appear.
“It is by far the easiest language to speak, and it’s by far the hardest language in the world to write,” he said.
Instructor Ai Chi Huang agreed and told the students that unlike other languages that have different verb conjugations and tenses and masculine and feminine articles, Mandarin doesn’t.
“Grammar in Chinese is super, super easy,” she said.
However, Mandarin Chinese does not have a phonetic alphabet, which means there is nothing in a Chinese character to indicate how it is pronounced. Characters are converted into a written form of the language called pinyin.
Speakers rely on inflection and four different tones. “The pitch of your voice is part of the word,” Huang said.
For example, words that are written very similarly can mean vastly different things.
“When kids go to school in China, they literally have to memorize the pronunciation for every character,” she said.
The idea to offer Chinese came about as an extension of a summer immersion program in Chinese run by Peggy Sharkey through the Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex (WSWHE) BOCES. Parents approached the district about having students participate in the immersion program, according to Suzanne Rayome, department head for world languages.
During the four-week summer camp, students learned Chinese language, cooking and calligraphy and tai chi. The experience culminated with a trip to Chinatown in New York City.
School officials wanted to continue offering Chinese, Rayome said, but knew they wouldn’t be able to fit it in the academic day, so they came up with the idea of an afterschool program. The program is being funded through a series of grants and a student fee of $100.
It began Sept. 29 with a three-hour session because that was a half-day of school.
Depending on their skill level, some students will be participating in an online course where they will practice vocabulary and speaking, according to Rayome.
“They will also Skype once a week with a Chinese teacher as well,” Rayome said.
The U.S. government has listed Mandarin Chinese as a critical language, and Rayome said some experts say that demand for people who can speak Chinese will surpass that of English. It is crucial to compete in the global marketplace.
“We want to come to the bargaining table or trade table with the same set of skills,” she said.
Students seemed to be enjoying the course.
“I like learning new languages,” said 17-year-old senior Alexandra Smith. “I know that Chinese is becoming a bigger thing economically, and I thought it would be wise to take it.”
Morgan Almy, 16, said she wanted to learn more about Chinese culture. She said she is a little nervous about how difficult it will be to learn the language. She hopes that it will help her, wherever her future career takes her: “I don’t want to be limited,” she said.