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Chinese class for kids teaches through play

A weekly class in its first year builds Mandarin vocabulary in children

Posted: September 29, 2013 - 7:36pm  |  Updated: September 29, 2013 - 11:02pm
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Teacher Mei Xue presses thumbs with Allison Blackwell, 4, in a sign of accomplishment during a Chinese class held at the First Church of God on Tuesday.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Teacher Mei Xue presses thumbs with Allison Blackwell, 4, in a sign of accomplishment during a Chinese class held at the First Church of God on Tuesday.

Five children under the age of five meet to play and sing every Tuesday morning at the First Church of God. They dance to music, make crafts and eat snacks together. And they do it all in Mandarin Chinese.

Instructors Lori Thomson and Mei Xue started Chinese for Juneau Kids in January. Now in its second semester, the language school teaches Mandarin in a low-pressure, non-academic setting.

On Tuesday, the children learned action words and phrases, such as “fly,” “run,” “swim” and “crawl.” During one exercise, Xue called out directions incorporating the new vocabulary and color words the class had learned in a previous class. Sheets of colored paper lay spaced out on the floor.

“Crawl to the purple,” Xue said to the kids in Chinese. “Swim to the black.”

The children listened to the words and followed the directions, racing each other to each piece of paper. One student, Naomi Blackwell, rushed ahead to a black piece of paper.

“Naomi’s swimming so fast,” Xue said, laughing.

The idea for a Chinese class for children came to Thomson while attempting to raise her daughters, Haley and Ming-Ming, bilingually.

“Understanding a language is really great to see how other people think, and how people from other cultures think differently,” she said. “When kids are exposed to different cultures, it makes them more open-minded and curious about the world, and I think that’s a really good thing.”

Thomson and her husband chose to teach their children Chinese because Thomson studies the language and spent five years in Taiwan. She realized the task would be easier if her daughters were surrounded by children with the same goal.

“Being in a social setting is important for kids, because language is a social tool,” Thomson said. “I would speak to my daughter in Chinese and she’d respond in English. If she’s around other people speaking it, she’ll speak it.”

Xue is a classical pianist who has taught piano and Chinese for 20 years, Thomson said. Thomson was taking Chinese lessons from Xue when they decided to team up.

“I thought it was really important to have a native speaker leading the class,” Thomson said. “She’s doing it because she likes teaching and she loves the kids.”

Anna Blackwell, whose daughters, Naomi and Allison, have been in the class since the beginning, said the fun lessons have helped her kids steadily build their Chinese vocabulary.

“The kids don’t even know they’re learning, they just think it’s fun games,” Blackwell said.

Blackwell said it was important to her that her children learn Chinese because Allison was adopted from China as a baby.

“It’s good for adopted children to be as in touch with their birth culture as possible,” she said. “We were hoping to meet other people who were interested in learning Mandarin.”

Thomson said she encourages parents to attend class with their children. On Tuesday, Blackwell and Sarah Anderson, another mom with a daughter in the class, helped lead the children in a dance activity and treasure hunt and served the snack.

“Can I have some more apple?” Allison asked during snack time.

“Say it in Chinese,” her mom replied. “Qing ni gei wo ping guo.”

The kids ate apple slices and zucchini bread using new chopsticks — kuai zi, in Chinese — they found during an earlier treasure hunt.

Everything in the one-and-a-half-hour class is meant to reinforce Chinese skills, including the snack and the craft, Thomson said. The instructors give parents tools and ideas to help the students practice at home, Blackwell said.

“When I’m serving dinner at home, I say, ‘Let’s talk about what our plate is, let’s talk about what our cup is,’” Blackwell said. “We can do the same kind of games at home, and that really reinforces the lessons.”

The class is intended for children 8 and younger, but Thomson hopes to grow the program with any interested young students. The class is meant to be “a mixture of kids” with different language levels, she said.

“I would love to build a community for kids to speak Chinese,” she said. “Where they’re friends, they like each other, they like getting together, and they have this common bond of studying Chinese.”

Anyone interested in the class can email Thomson at chinese4juneaukids@gmail.com or check it out at www.facebook.com/chineseforjuneaukids.

 Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.

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