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Helmut Schmidt, Published August 12 2013

VIDEO: Area students get a crash course in Chinese

MOORHEAD – Storytelling, tai chi, dance, painting, singing and even ping pong are helping 47 Fargo and Moorhead elementary and middle school students learn to speak and understand Chinese.

The two-week STARTALK program at the Trollwood School of Performing Arts engages students in a range of cultural activities, immersing them in listening, writing and speaking Chinese.

By the end of last week, students could hold simple conversation with a Chinese speaker, STARTALK program director Mary Thrond said.

By Friday, the third- through fifth-graders will tell – in Chinese – the story of how the Chinese zodiac was created, Thrond said.

Meanwhile, middle schoolers will give reports on endangered animals, also in Chinese.

But don’t call it work.

“It’s not school. It’s really fun,” said Josh Gronneberg, 12, who starts at Fargo’s Discovery Middle School in a couple weeks.

“We know all the animals and how to count up to 10. It’s not that hard. They break it down and tell you over and over,” said Gracie Lingle, 12, who will also go to Discovery. “It’s just so cool.”

The trick is to package the learning in fun: painting, singing folk songs and playing. It also doesn’t hurt that if you want to eat lunch, you have to use chopsticks, the kids said.

“The first day, they learned about pandas. And what American kid doesn’t like pandas?” Thrond said.

“Culturally, we’re trying to open their hearts to China,” Thrond said. “You can’t learn the language without the culture.”

Cultural insight

STARTALK is an initiative started by former President George W. Bush in 2006. The federal program aims to provide learning experiences in 10 critical languages not typically taught in U.S. schools. Beyond Chinese, the list includes Arabic, Dari, Hindi, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Swahili, Turkish and Urdu. The program is administered locally by the Fargo School District.

“I thought it would be a challenge. That’s why I wanted to take it (the class),” said Lindsay Winkelman, 14, who starts at Fargo’s Davies High School this fall. “I think it would be amazing to go there (to China).”

Zhimin Guan, a professor of art and painting at Minnesota State University Moorhead, and four other native Chinese teachers, keep communication with students at about 90 percent Chinese every day.

Guan said the Chinese brush painting he’s taught the students “gives them an insight into Chinese culture.”

The learning by doing in the brushstrokes of Chinese characters, or of drawing a panda, a carp or a dragon while learning a folk tale, also reinforces pronunciation of words, Guan said.

“Students remember that vividly,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583