Fearless Fifth-Graders Embrace Far East

On the first day of class, Catherine Haddad walked into her room of fifth graders, introduced herself and promptly began teaching — just without speaking English. Instead, she relied on Mandarin and gesticulation, pointing to or picking up the thing she was talking about.

“They got it right away,” Haddad said. “The biggest thing about teaching kids this age is that you want to take advantage of their natural learning process and the best way to do that is to make class fun, so that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

She’s succeeded.

During one recent class, students warmed up by singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in Mandarin. Then Haddad led a tone pronunciation exercise that combined the call-and-response of the blues with the rhythm and energy of a cheerleading routine. Throughout the lesson, Haddad asked questions and hands shot into air, their owners raring to answer.

The curtain just fell on the first trimester of Chinese language instruction in Lower School. The class of 2023 will become Country Day’s first to spend three marking periods studying three different languages: Spanish, French and Mandarin.

A big part of the challenge in teaching Mandarin to native English speakers is that Chinese is a tonal language. This means that a word’s definition changes depending on the intonation or pitch with which it’s said. Whereas English, Spanish, French and other Indo-European languages rely on different words to convey different meanings, Chinese uses variations in pitch to wring multiple meanings from a single word or syllable.

Another obvious difference between Mandarin, the most widely spoken Chinese dialect, and English is a writing system that uses pictograms instead of the Latin alphabet.

Haddad didn’t wade into the linguistic weeds with her students, however. She wanted them to learn something a bit less complicated: “Get up and speak!” she said.

She introduced the idea of tones by having her students speak English using Mandarin inflections. “They picked it up immediately,” Haddad said.

“One of the great things about starting with kids this young is that they have no fear,” Haddad said. “In Middle School and Upper School, students are sometimes self-conscious and don’t want to make a mistake or say the wrong thing. That’s not a problem the fifth-graders have.”

Expanding Mandarin instruction to the fifth grade is the realization of a goal Haddad and the school have shared since she began teaching at Country Day in 2012.

“When I first started, I could see that there was a vision and a desire to grow the Chinese language program. I would love for that to continue, because now we’re at a place where a student can go from this fifth grade introduction straight through to AP, spending eight years becoming really, really solid in this language.

“That’s wonderful,” Haddad said.