OXFORD, Miss. – The Oxford High School students in Ping Zhang’s class await their instructor’s arrival. As she enters the room and takes her position in front of the class, the students rise from their seats, bow and respond to her greeting – in Mandarin Chinese. For the next 45 minutes, it is the only language spoken in the classroom.
These five are among nearly 20 students getting a rare opportunity to learn Chinese while in high school, thanks to the Chinese Language Flagship Program and the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Mississippi.
With funding from the Language Flagship, the department established and helps support the Chinese-language program at OHS, the only one of its kind at a Mississippi public high school. Since its inception in 2008, the program has continued to expand cultural awareness and promote inclusiveness.
“The focus of the course is for students to achieve overall proficiency, so the curriculum is much different than that of their other classes,” said Zhang, a UM graduate student in the Teaching English as a Second Language program who had teaching experience in Chinese and worked with OHS officials to launch the program. “In addition to being able to fluently speak, listen, read and write in Chinese, my students must also know and understand the culture and customs of China.”
The program began with six students the first year, and about the same number of students enrolled in Chinese 1 the following year. Four students continued to Chinese 2.
While there are 26 phonetic sounds that correspond to the English alphabet, the spoken Chinese language is filled with various tones that convey different meanings to the listener. Students are required to know and speak the inflections associated with each group of tones. Unlike English, there are no tenses nor is there any verb conjugation in Chinese.
The written Chinese language (a form of calligraphy) contains more than 5,000 “picture words,” each varying in stroke lengths, size and shape, which give distinct meanings to the symbols. Many characters are made of two parts. One part, called “radicals,” represents the character’s meaning, and the other part represents the sound.
“Each language has its own set of rules,” Zhang said.
UM’s Chinese Language Flagship Program subsidized instruction in the first year. The UM program is doing that again this year with an eye toward Oxford expanding the curriculum beyond second year next year. Nearly 20 students are taking Chinese at OHS this year in two levels.
“As chair of the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Mississippi, I am exceedingly proud of the working relationship our department has with Oxford High School,” said Donald Dyer, professor and co-director of the Chinese Language Flagship Program.
“Off and on, our department has been able to help OHS monetarily with its Chinese program. Our efforts and support have paid enormous dividends at OHS. Oxford High School has one of only three Chinese-language programs in the state of Mississippi and the only program at a public school, a testament to OHS’s progressive academic programs and its forward-looking administration.”
Chinese 3 is likely to be added next year and AP Chinese is a real possibility in the near future, Dyer added.
A number of OHS students with no Chinese background have taken a month of intensive Chinese at UM in the summer through the university’s federally-funded StarTalk program for high school students. Those students have been able to move directly into Chinese 2 after being in StarTalk.Two of Zhang’s students – including Dyer’s daughter, Erin – have become elite members of UM’s Flagship program and three of her students have taken Chinese courses on the UM campus while still in high school after having taken Chinese 1 and 2. Zhang’s current students hope to do the same.
“I definitely plan to continue studying Chinese while I pursue a degree in journalism,” said Alli Bridgers, one of three OHS seniors in Chinese 2. She has already been accepted into the UM Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College and has applied to the Croft Institute for International Studies.
“Because the United States’ relations with China are constantly getting stronger, I want to be able to stand out in the job market should I get the opportunity to live and work in China one day. I also like Chinese food and enjoy being able to order dishes using the native language.”
Austin Dorris, another senior in Chinese 2, has applied directly to the university’s Flagship Chinese program. Though his initial motive for learning the language was the potential for financial profitability and job security, Dorris has since changed his focus.
“Though I always enjoyed learning other languages, I’ve really grown to love the Chinese people and culture,” he said. “I’m very excited about the possibilities of studying, living and working in China one day.”
Senior Tory Dixon is the only Chinese 2 student who has already visited the country.
“After I took Chinese 1, I went on a mission trip to work in an orphanage in China,” Dixon said. “While there, I discovered the Chinese people are very peaceful and likeable. Once I earn my degree, I’d like to return to work as a surgeon.”
Glenn Hopkins, dean of UM’s College of Liberal Arts, praises the accomplishments of Dyer and Zhang.
“The Department of Modern Languages’ support of the innovative Oxford High School Chinese program broadens students’ educational experience and prepares them for success in college and beyond,” Hopkins said.
The UM Chinese Language Flagship Program (founded in 2003) is, together with Brigham Young University, one of two Chinese Flagship Centers in the United States. The Nanjing Chinese Flagship Center in China is a common resource for the UM and BYU Flagships and for seven newer Flagship programs at Arizona State University, Hunter College, Indiana University, San Francisco State University, the universities of Oregon and Rhode Island, and Western Kentucky University.
For more information about UM’s Chinese Language Flagship Program, visit https://www.olemiss.edu/chinese/.
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