University of Mississippi

MPB Features OHS Chinese Language Program

Oxford High is State’s Only Public School to Teach Chinese

Mississippi Public Broadcasting, Published by Sandra Knispel, 20 Apr 2012 08:51am

In a difficult job market, a candidate’s ability to stand out is important. A fact that has not been lost on a small group of Oxford high school students who are studying Mandarin Chinese. MPB’s Sandra Knispel has more on the state’s only public school to teach the world’s most widely spoken language.

[Nat sound of students singing Frère Jacques in Chinese]

Admittedly being able to sing Frère Jacques in Chinese isn’t going to land you your first job. But being able to read and write the language and have conversations on a wide range of topics just might. Here at Oxford High School, the students – just as at any Chinese school — stand to greet their teacher, Ping Zhang. At Oxford High she’s the only one for whom they rise.

Zhang teaches Mandarin to a class of just five students, ranging from 10th to 12th grade. Roughly 95 percent of the class is taught in the target language.

“Chinese is not easy so the students really need to pay more effort,” Zhang says.

Oxford High is the only public school in Mississippi to offer Chinese. The idea was born in 2006 and serendipity played an important role. It came in the form of Don Dyer’s daughter Erin, who was then a high school freshman, eager to learn Chinese. Dyer himself is the chair of the Modern Languages Department at the University of Mississippi.

“She begged me mercilessly. ‘Dad, can I be in the Startalk program?’ And I said, ‘No, STARTALK is for people who are going to be juniors or seniors.’ But that got me thinking, ‘Why can’t we just have Chinese at Oxford High School?’ ”

Dyer began by finding a suitable native speaker from the university’s Chinese program. Next came a small start-up grant from the national STARTALK program for high schools.

“And so we worked that year to make that happen. By the time she was a sophomore Oxford [High School] was offering Chinese for the first time.”

Erin graduated two years ago and is now studying Chinese at Ole Miss. But the close relationship between the university and the high school endures, says Oxford High School Principal Michael Martin.

“The University of Mississippi worked with Oxford city schools to institute the program and has worked very closely with us to keep it going. The teacher, Ms Zhang, who does a fabulous job, is also an employee of the university and there is a strong follow-up program at the university as well.”

Among high school students here it’s no secret that Ping Zhang’s Chinese classes are definitely not for slackers.

“Most of the students who decide to take Chinese, usually they have [a] very strong academic background and great motivation. Otherwise they might prefer to take some easier languages,” Zhang laughs.

But those who burn the midnight oil reap the rewards, like senior Austin Dorris.

“My dream job would be to work with the U.N. or maybe a non-profit and to be able to actually go back and forth to China. I’m going to go to Ole Miss and I’m going to do the Chinese Flagship [Program]. I just got accepted and I’m really excited.”

The prestigious Flagship Program, which picks only top students, receives funding from the Department of Defense as part of the national critical languages program.

But why study Chinese with its complicated characters and unfamiliar sounds? Clearly the challenges of a global marketplace have not been lost on 10th-grader Brian Clancy and graduating senior Alli Bridgers.

“I thought Chinese would be the most interesting and the most useful in the future, because China is a growing world power,” Clancy says. “And really if you now Chinese you can do anything with your life.”

“I want to be a journalist and I know that it’s really competitive,” Bridgers says. “I wanted something that would set me apart and when I applied for jobs people would be like ‘Wow, she can speak Chinese. Let’s hire her!’ “

And so this intrepid band of students pushes on, discovering an ancient culture and modern customs along the way. But even to the uninitiated not everything taught in the classroom here is lost in translation. [nat sound of Happy Birthday sung in Chinese]