WINTHROP — If you ask the second-year Chinese students at Liberty Bell High School in Winthrop what the hardest thing about learning the language is, they all respond at once: “The characters.”
Those picture-like symbols each represent a different word. And there are so many, that learning Chinese is rather daunting.
After a year and a half, the 12 students in Eveline Wathen’s class have learned roughly 130 of more than 56,000 characters in the Chinese language.
That bit of knowledge hasn’t discouraged these kids from delving into another year of Chinese studies — a class taught at no other North Central Washington school, and one of only a dozen programs in the state — most at large schools in Western Washington.
This is the second year that Liberty Bell has offered Mandarin Chinese. All of last year’s students, except a few who dropped out early, went on to take Chinese 2, Wathen said. Another 15 students are taking Chinese 1.
Their reasons for taking the class vary.
John Sinclair said it’s a change from Spanish, the only other foreign language offered at Liberty Bell, so he thought he’d give it a try. He liked it, and so stuck with it.
“I’ve always been interested in oriental cultures, and this is a good opportunity to learn more about that,” said Tom Zbyszewski. He’s looking at colleges that offer Chinese so he can continue his studies at the next level.
Katherine Tannehill said she and two other students want to be able to communicate with their host families if the school district is able to work out an exchange program with a school in Beijing.
And Amalia Webber said as the fastest growing language offered at U.S. high schools, she’s hoping a background that includes Chinese could lead to new opportunities.
Those are many of the same reasons that school superintendent Mark Wenzel pursued the course offering when Wathen approached him with the idea a few years ago. “China has an incredibly powerful economy, and the largest population in the world,” he said. “To be competitive in the 21st Century, we have to understand China.”
Despite budget cuts and Liberty Bell’s small size — only 150 students in grades 9 through 12 — Wenzel said they have no plans to cut Chinese. “We can’t stop introducing our students to the world.”
Before coming to the Methow Valley, Wenzel said he studied Japanese, Chinese and Korean. Last November, he spent 10 days in China in a tour sponsored by the Chinese government and the U.S. College Board, a nonprofit group that works to improve access to higher education. He said he earned about education in China’s changing world, and connected with Chinese teachers and administrators interested in developing an exchange program with the Methow Valley.
Liberty Bell’s two Chinese classes aren’t just about learning the language. They include lessons in culture and history, as well as modern day China.
Last Thursday, Wathen passed out a handful of maps written in Chinese and asked her second-year students to tell her, in full sentences, in Chinese, where one landmark is in relation to another. Like the Gate of Heavenly Peace compared with the Beijing International Airport. Or the Hall of Beautiful Flowers compared to the Forbidden City. “I would like to hear Chinese only, please,” she directed. Using not just north, south, east or west, but southwest, or northeast.
Students enjoyed tea from tiny cups as they worked out their answers. Some days, they celebrate a Chinese holiday, or cook a Chinese dish.
Students in her first-year class watched a BBC clip about Chinese students — how they must study hard for the chance to get into the best high schools, and take one exam that cannot be repeated to determine if they can go to college. Some devoted parents — most of whom have only one child — take a year off work to help their child prepare for it.
Wathen, who is from Holland, said she studied Chinese in college, and later lived in Taiwan and China for 11 years.
She said while there may be more than 56,000 individual Chinese characters published in the “Dictionary of Chinese Characters,” most Chinese students know about 3,500 after nine years of school. To read a Chinese newspaper and be considered literate, about 2,300 characters are needed, she said.
Wathen tries to teach her students 100 each year, but they learn to speak many more words in Chinese, using phonetic script. Still, learning the characters is an important part of learning Chinese.
Her first-year students will tell you that each character actually tells a story. Like the upside down Y that means run, and looks like a man running. Or the symbol for fish — a line representing water, and above it, a box with squares that looks like a farmer’s field, where fish are used in their agricultural practices.
Wathen said she wants her students to understand what each part of the characters represent because will help them later, when the words become more complicated, and their new vocabulary builds off the characters they’ve already learned.
And although it’s the most difficult part of learning Chinese, it’s also one of the most interesting, she said. “Whenever we learn a new character, the whole class is dead silent.”
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512