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The Chinese Language & Cultural Exchange Program Pairs Authentic Experiences with Valuable Life Lessons

The students at Bishop Guilfoyle have an exciting opportunity to immerse themselves in a foreign culture, without ever leaving the classroom. The school’s Chinese language and cultural exchange program provides students with authentic language instruction and student-led exploration into Chinese culture, currently all overseen by Helena Xuan, a Beijing Normal University student majoring in Teaching Chinese to Speakers of Other Languages. Part of Xuan’s degree requirements is a teaching assignment in a foreign country, which was facilitated by the University of Pittsburgh. It was there that she found her way to Bishop Guilfoyle.

Currently, there are three levels of Chinese coursework offered—Chinese 1 during first period, and Chinese 2 and 3 during eighth period. A typical class period begins with a Chinese greeting, followed by a brief media introduction to the day’s topics. Language reviews are conducted as playfully as possible, often formatted in a game-like style, to make the experience hands-on and enjoyable for students. Then, it’s on to learning new words, grammar, and skills, before answering questions and delegating assignments. Students are encouraged to speak Chinese as much as possible in the classroom environment, and to also find Chinese speakers in the school and community to practice alongside.

However, the class period isn’t solely devoted to language skills. Instead, timely information is provided on Chinese culture and holidays, incorporating the direct interests of the students. “The kinds of Chinese culture I decide to introduce come from students’ interests,” says Xuan. “For example, some students said they like music, so I introduced Chinese traditional instruments to them, and I also borrowed some instruments to show them. Some girls said they like Chinese traditional clothing, so I also prepared a lesson related to that. I brought my traditional clothing to show them.”

Xuan also uses her classroom’s décor to inspire natural curiosity among her students. “Before the school year started, I put many decorations in the classroom, like pandas, red lanterns, and Chinese knots. So the first time they came to my room, they were curious about everything and—trying to learn more. As time went by, we made more cultural decorations.”

Students have reported a growing appreciation for the opportunity, particularly as they begin to develop their language skills to the point that they can use them in everyday life. “The Chinese language program really has encouraged me to explore Chinese language and culture outside of the classroom,” says senior Kaitlyn Edmiston. “I have made a lot of the Chinese crafts that we learned how to make in class at home. I have also been listening to more Chinese music and watching more television shows from China to help me become more proficient in the language.”

The BG faculty believes that this kind of language and cultural exchange experience benefits students on a much deeper level. Beyond the normal perks of learning a foreign language for academics or a future career, it inspires critical thinking, logic, and a good attitude when overcoming difficult obstacles and bad habits.

“The opportunity for our students to study the Chinese language, along with their exposure to Chinese culture, is instrumental in assisting with our school’s mission statement to prepare young men and women for rewarding and productive lives in our global society. Our school is located in Central Pennsylvania; that, coupled with us being a private high school, can limit our students’ exposure to cultural diversity. This program helps to afford our students this exposure,” said Principal Joan Donnelly.