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Belvedere Kindergarteners Say 'Ni Hao' to Chinese Language Immersion

 He's only 5 years old, but Vaughn Allen, a kindergarten student at Belvedere Elementary, learns new words in Mandarin Chinese every day.

And when Vaughn gets home, he teaches those words to his Mom, Kimmerie Allen, the school's assistant principal.

“He might be teaching me numbers or colors, and he'll say, 'Mama, this is how we say it. Now you say it.' He's the teacher to the teacher,” Allen said with a laugh.

Vaughn is one of about 75 students in Aiken County Public Schools' language immersion program for 5K students, which started last fall. The class is the only Mandarin Chinese language program for children in a 50-mile radius. The closest is at Meadow Glen Elementary in Lexington County.

While Vaughn and his classmates at Belvedere are learning to count in Mandarin – yi for one, er for two and san for three, students at Millbrook Elementary in Aiken are learning eins, zwei, drei in German and students at Clearwater Elementary are counting uno, dos, tres in Spanish.

The students will continue language immersion and culture classes together through 12th grade.

At Belvedere, Yanfei Gao, a native of Beijing, China's capital, teaches science and math classes in Chinese only – no English. Fran Gay, Belvedere's teacher of the year, teaches English language arts and social studies in English. Shannon Parrish is the kindergarten assistant.

On a Wednesday morning in mid-January, 27 students celebrated the Chinese New Year a few days early, showing their parents and family members what they had learned in less than six months.

Sitting cross-legged on floor mats and with a Panda bear poster looking over their shoulders, they counted by ones from one to 30 and by 10s to 100 in Mandarin, completely engaged in the lesson. They also called out the names of colors and the words for chopsticks and dumplings, a traditional dish at a Chinese New Year feast, in Mandarin.

Gao said Mandarin Chinese is the most spoken language around the world, but it can be challenging for English speakers.

“Mandarin Chinese is way different from English,” said Gao, who came to America in 2012 and earned her bachelor's degree and teaching certificate at USC Aiken. “The letters look different and sound different. Also, I try to use only Chinese during class.”

To overcome those challenges, Gao uses visual aids, gestures and physical movements to help the children learn and connect with the Chinese words she's teaching.

“My students love that a lot,” she said.

Read the full Aiken Standard article here

Larry Wood/Aiken Standard