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Culture Connection

Students learn Chinese language and more at summer program

Flynn Magill’s mom wanted him to do something productive during his summer vacation. His two sisters are taking dance classes, and he didn’t want to join them. Instead, he wanted to do something fun, interesting and new – so he’s learning Chinese.

Magill, a fourth-grade student at Founders Elementary School in DeKalb, is one of 10 students participating in Startalk’s Chinese language immersion program. The sixth annual three-week summer camp is for students having completed third through eighth grades.

The camp, held from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 12 to 30 at DeKalb High School, is offered through Startalk, a national, federally funded program where Mandarin Chinese is taught in an immersive environment.

In their class each day, the students learn to read and write both traditional and simplified Mandarin and understand the spoken language.

“In class, the students learn basic Mandarin vocabulary, including numbers, foods, days of the week and animals,” said Agnes Ma, the program’s site manager. “By the end of the class, they are speaking sentences and the class is taught fully in Chinese. The students are learning not only about Chinese vocabulary, but also Chinese culture. They can understand and appreciate the differences between our cultures.”

During the summer camp, students have the opportunity to not only try but also learn how to make traditional Chinese foods such as dumplings and fruit smoothies. The students also create a cultural craft every day, including designs from Chinese paper folding and origami.

Reilly Farrell, an eighth-grade student at St. Mary Catholic School in DeKalb, said he can place orders in Mandarin and talk to waitresses in Chinese restaurants after participating in the camp for three years.

“When I first came to the summer camp, I only knew how to say hello in Chinese, ni hao,” Farrell said. “Before, I only knew about the Great Wall and fried rice. Now I know there’s a difference between European and Chinese dragons and that you should never flip a fish over. It symbolizes the fisherman’s boat flipping over and losing all your money.”

Farrell said he has been learning Spanish at school, but most of the other students only know English. Fifth-grader Preston Iser is home-schooled and said he first began to learn Chinese when he told his mom that he was interested in the language.

“I like that the class isn’t just about learning new words,” Iser said. “We also sing, watch videos, do arts and crafts and make food. I’ve always been interested in China and Chinese culture, so this is a lot of fun.”

The summer camp will end with a closing ceremony on June 30 for the students’ families. The students also have the option of attending five cultural events, one each month from August through December.

Instructor Linda Ma said she believes that teaching Chinese to students is important because the language is not taught in local schools.

“Chinese is important in the business world and every day, in real-life situations,” she said. “By teaching Chinese to children, they can bring what they learn to the community and their family.”

Magill said he can’t wait to run home at the end of each camp day and tell his family the Chinese words he learned. He already is planning to attend the camp next year.

“When I grow up, I want to live in China,” Magill said. “I want to learn more Chinese and eat lots of dumplings every day, especially the steamed ones. They’re very good.”

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