Lebanon High partners with University of Oregon for pilot Chinese language program

LEBANON — The bell rang 10 minutes ago for the online Chinese class at Lebanon High School, but adviser Kevin Wong is still struggling with the video connection for Thursday’s dialogue practice.

He’s exchanged and accepted video conference invitations with the University of Oregon language coach in Eugene, but the computers still refuse to talk. So instead of a face-to-face chat, the five students take turns practicing with the coach via cell phone.

“I’m so bad at this!” groans sophomore Rainy-Leigh Hyatt, 16, burying her head in her hands. “It’s hard when it’s on the phone, ’cause the connection is so bad!”

Even junior Donny Ma, whose family already speaks fluent Mandarin and who took the class to learn to write and read the characters, is having trouble. He and the coach aren’t holding the same practice dialogue script, so they improvise, asking one another about their backgrounds and hobbies.

“I told her I like camping and bowling,” he says. “I like camping a lot.”

Technological difficulties have been common so far in this class, which is being offered at Lebanon High School this year for the first time through a pilot program offered by the University of Oregon’s Center for Applied Second Language Studies.

Even when things are working perfectly, an online language class comes with challenges not found in a real-time, real-classroom setting. Being able to see the teacher’s mouth and facial expression as a word is pronounced can be critical to understanding, Wong says.

That’s particularly true for a tonal language such as Mandarin. Students must know not only the right word to say, but the right tone in which to say it — flat, rising, falling, or a rise-and-fall combination — to produce the correct meaning.

“If I don’t use the tone, it means something completely different, or it means nothing at all,” says junior Daniel Horner, 17.

For instance, adds junior Caleb Dickerson, 16, you don’t want to mix up the tones for the word “ma,” which can mean, depending on your pronunciation, either “mother” or “moose.”

Still, Horner says he prefers the online experience. He took French as a sophomore and says he felt like he lost a lot of the experience as soon as he left the classroom. Here, he says, he can work one-on-one with the teacher and go back over the online record of what he’s done so far.

Donny Ma doesn’t agree. “I think it’s better if the person’s in the classroom,” he says.

Wong’s parents speak Cantonese and sent him to Chinese school as a child so he’d learn to speak Mandarin as well. But while Wong knows some vocabulary and can help with pronunciation, the actual teacher is Vicki Yang at Beaverton High School. She monitors the assignments, gives feedback, provides support and assigns the grades.

Under Yang’s guidance, the students learn to recognize Chinese characters, translate them into the phonetic form known as pinyin, then learn what the words mean.

Hyatt said she chose to take Chinese because of her interest in Asian cultures, which she remembers starting as a toddler with her first taste of Chinese food.

For others, the very complexity of the language brought them to the class.

“I didn’t want to be cliche and choose Spanish or French,” says Steven Morgan, 16.

Jennifer Moody is the education reporter for the Democrat-Herald. She can be reached at 541-6113 or jennifer.moody@lee.net.

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