By Helmut Schmidt
FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Never underestimate the power of patty-cake.
Weiwei Qian doesn’t.
With a morning class of Fargo South High School students dragging, the Mandarin Chinese teacher beckons one of her charges to the front of the classroom to play a Chinese version.
“Ni pai yi, wo pai yi, yi ge xiao hair chuan xin (I clap one, you clap one, one child wears new clothes),” she says, starting the rhythm of the child’s game.
Her palm beats a steady clap against her student’s open hand.
“Ni pai er, wo pai er, er ge xiao hair shu xiao bian (I clap two, you clap two, two children have pigtails),” she says, picking up the pace.
Now, she’s got their attention — if only because they want to see how long their classmate can hang with the black-haired dynamo.
“Ni pai san, wo pai san, san ge xiao hair chi ping gan (I clap three, you clap three, three children eat cookies),” she says, speeding up again.
By the time the game is done, the class laughs and applauds.
The students pair off to work on their Chinese patty-cake chops.
Qian wants to ratchet up the number of students taking Mandarin classes in Fargo schools as fast as she can patty-cake.
She sees tremendous benefits in learning the language, which is spoken by more than 1.2 billion people.
Knowing Chinese will also give students a leg up on their peers in business, she says.
“Chinese is the language of the future,” Qian says. “It’s going to offer our kids more opportunities.”
Mandarin is not hard to learn, she says.
The grammar is easy, she says. There are no verb tenses or different forms of verbs. There’s no difference between singular and plural nouns. Nouns aren’t masculine or feminine. Adjectives don’t change form to agree with nouns.
The ideographs and pictographs that make up written Mandarin must be memorized, but if you know 1,000 commonly used characters, you will recognize 90 percent of the characters in a Chinese newspaper, she says.
“I don’t know how to tell people [that] Chinese is not the hardest language in the world,” she says.
Amy Hamerlik takes Mandarin at 7:55 a.m. at South Campus II. The Davies High School freshman, whose father travels in China for work, says it doesn’t hurt her brain.
“It’s just different. I think that just scares people. It’s not as hard as people think it is. It’s awesome,” says Hamerlik, who wants to teach English in China.
Jesse Burgum, another Davies freshman, enjoys the skits and singing.
“It’s simple, and it’s a fun way to come home and say, ‘Hey mom, guess what I learned to do today? I learned to sing a new nursery rhyme in Chinese,’ ” Burgum says. “I love it.”
Others, like Emily O’Meara, a sophomore at South High, caution that Chinese does require one to study.
Still, it’s that challenge — and potential rewards — that are attractive.
“It would be great for jobs later in life. And it looks great on a transcript,” she says. “It’s a huge challenge. It definitely will be rewarding in the end, too.”
Fargo is the only North Dakota district offering Mandarin taught on-site by a highly qualified teacher, according to the Department of Instruction.
Qian teaches at South and North high schools and South Campus II, carrying her materials in a rolling suitcase from building to building. She has taught introductory classes at Discovery and Ben Franklin middle schools.
Minnesota, by comparison, has 27 public school districts and some private schools, too, that teach the language. Altogether, nearly 6,000 public school students are learning Mandarin between the grade school and high school levels, according to the Department of Education.
In fact, the Moorhead School Board recently voted to add Mandarin Chinese to its course offerings during the fall of 2011.
Qian is passionate about teaching Chinese and chokes up a bit as she moves through the halls of South Campus II, pointing out art and projects on Chinese cities and food done by her students.
“They’re very good kids,” she says. “I’m so proud of them.”
Her students feel the same way about her.
“I really, really love our teacher. She’s very good. She works really, really hard,” says Renny Taylor, a North High student who takes Mandarin at South to make her schedule work.
“There’s times she’s stayed up until 2 in the morning making PowerPoints for us. That’s crazy,” says Taylor, who also hopes to teach English in China.
“She has a very funny personality,” says Burgum. “She really helps you get your brain going at that time of day.”
“I love her. She makes up almost all the reasons why we love the class so much,” Hamerlik says.
Nancy Jordheim, a Fargo assistant superintendent, says the district will add a third-year level class if there are enough students.
Adding a teacher will depend on the number of students that sign up to learn Mandarin, she says.
She says the class gives students an opportunity to expand their horizons.
“I really think this is one of the things that opens that window for kids,” she says. ♦