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Chinese class popular at Mercer Island High School

Remember when everyone used to take French or Spanish? Those languages are still available at Mercer Island High School, but classes in Chinese Mandarin are the new rage.

Over 200 students are studying Mandarin, based on the Beijing dialect, which forms the basis of standard Chinese, known as Mandarin. Teacher Zhousu He, who is originally from China, said the Beijing dialect is different in some of the pronunciation and vocabulary from other dialects. Approximately 70 percent of Chinese are native speakers of some Mandarin dialect.

At the beginning of her classes, He warms up the students with a speaking exercise. She said the language is easy to learn by listening and speaking, but reading and writing are the challenge. There are no verbs to conjugate, no tenses, no alphabet. The students learn by relating pictures to the characters; the characters have different versions with different meanings.

He came to the United States in 2001 to study English as a second language at Oklahoma State University. She has worked at MIHS for four years, long enough to see some of her students get from Chinese I to Chinese IV. She said the program was started in 1989 by now-retired teacher Gordon Davenport. She said more boys than girls are taking Chinese.

"German used to be offered here, but there were less and less registrations," He said.

That, coupled with the large Asian population on the Island, prompted the change — and the fact that China has emerged as the world's second largest economy.

Junior Ben Eggers spent the 2009-2010 academic year in Harbin in the Heilongjiang province of China as an exchange student. He lived with a Chinese family, immersed in the genuine Chinese lifestyle. Eggers said he had a bad time in middle school, tried the Yeshiva High School, and then he thought he'd try something really different. He found the high school student exchange program offered by American Field Service and decided on China as his destination. Why China?

"Partly from some deep-seated psychological need to do something really different, and it was as far away geographically as I could get," Eggers said.

He said Eggers went to China knowing not one word of Chinese. His host family treated him like he was part of their family. He didn't have to do his homework either because he didn't understand most of it, due to the language barrier.

When asked about the political climate in China, Eggers said it was weird.

"I didn't spend enough time there as a Chinese-speaking adult, but it's a lot like America. But everyone accepts that the government can do what they want," Eggers said.

After high school, Eggers wants to be a businessman or a teacher. He wants to travel so he can use his Chinese.

"No matter what I do, Chinese will keep me afloat — plus, I enjoy the language," he said.

Eggers will be returning to China this summer for a summer internship with a photography company in Beijing.

Senior Rachel Brown said she decided to take Chinese over Spanish or French because she thought it would be more useful. She thinks she speaks the language well enough now to "get by" if she were in China.

"I know China is becoming an economic power," Brown said. "It would be useful in business."

Brown plans to pursue environmental science, possibly at the University of Washington.

Senior Woodrow Jacobson said he originally took Spanish, but didn't like it. Like Brown, he views China's growing economic power as a good reason to learn the language.

Sophomore Jamie Jiang is Chinese, but only lived there as an infant. Her parents moved to the United States so she would get a better education. Now, she is learning the language so she can speak more easily with her parents and extended relatives.

It's a fun class, too. He had them all pick a celebrity, then write a complete paragraph using "full sentences and no bullet points," first describing the person's personality, then appearance. The kids looked like they were having a good time with the task.

Next year, Chinese will be offered beginning in the seventh grade at Islander Middle School. He and Jennifer Wright, executive director of learning and technology services, are working on the curriculum now.

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