Paul VI Chinese course opens doors

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It's no secret that China increasingly has influenced American life over the last few decades. With imports totaling more than $426 billion in 2014, the typical American shopper would be hard-pressed to make a trip to any retail store without finding a "Made in China" label. In this global economy, employers need people who speak and understand Chinese.

So when Tom McLean, a board member at Paul VI Catholic High School, proposed that the school offer a course in Chinese, the school administration saw a great opportunity for alumni to stand out in the workplace. In 2013, Paul VI became the first school in the Arlington Diocese to offer a Chinese language course.

"One of the benefits is when you do look at the resume of someone who understands Chinese, that sets them apart," said McLean, who works as director of international communications for Boeing. Knowing how to speak the language opened doors for him to spend time living and working in China, Boeing's biggest market outside the United States.

"At Boeing and with other big U.S. corporations, we see the potential that China has and how quickly it has grown," McLean said. Students fluent in Chinese can find unique opportunities to work in trade or the U.S. government after college, he said.

That kind of potential has attracted students, like junior Kevin O'Callaghan, to enroll in the class. "Chinese is a very relevant language today," O'Callaghan said. "I had finished taking Spanish and chose to take Chinese instead of German or Latin because of its usefulness, if you will. I want to work in the military or government after graduation."

Students spend 55 minutes a day learning "survival expressions" for daily life and travel, correct pronunciation, Chinese characters and cultural heritage. To keep students engaged, teacher Liangyan Wang likes to mix in fun activities like Ping-Pong (hugely popular in China), calligraphy and making dumplings for the Chinese New Year. The average class size is 10 or 11 students.

"Chinese is a challenge and a different language, so that's the perfect size for a class," Wang said. "Students can talk to me individually and I can work with them on their needs."

One-on-one time can prove particularly important for a course like Chinese, with its own characters that are "more like drawing a picture than learning a word," Wang said. Even vocabulary can be a challenge - the wrong pronunciation can completely change the meaning of a word. Some students are intimidated by the idea of even enrolling in the course because they're afraid it could hurt their GPA, she said.

"Some students may think that Chinese is difficult and it will drop their grade. But I'd encourage them to give it a try," she said. "Embrace the challenge."

McLean's daughter, Kathleeen, is one of the students embracing the challenge.

"It's a lot more studying, but the teacher is very good," said Kathleen, a junior. "She knows that it's a hard language for English speakers to take. She goes slow and makes sure that nobody gets left behind."

Seven students will have a "real world" opportunity to put what they learned to the test this spring - by visiting China. Wang will take them to see the Forbidden City in Beijing and terracotta warriors in Xi'an, as well as Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai. The students will use their language skills when they visit a local school and meet a local family.

"China's such a big part of history," said Kathleen. "Now we get to learn about it and actually go and see it."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015