Pinxuan "Erik" Wang teaches professor Barbara Steinhaus different Chinese words and sentences during their weekly virtual meetings. (Photo provided by Wang)

Virtual Chinese lessons brings together Chinese students and Brenau community

Aug 2, 2021
Kathryne Davis

While students in Brenau University’s Anhui Normal University partnership have been learning remotely from China over the past year, many have found a way to stay connected to the campus community by teaching free virtual Chinese lessons to faculty, staff and fellow students in the United States.

Mandy Bartell, Brenau’s coordinator for the ANU partnership, came up with the idea of having the students share their language and culture. She was part of a similar program when she taught at a high school in China and thought the lessons would benefit the Brenau community as well as the students.

“The program in China was very successful,” Bartell said. “This past January, I thought to ask the juniors about doing something similar.”

Two juniors, Pinxuan “Erik” Wang and Hanlu “Hayley” Zhang, volunteered to help lead the lessons with assistance from Bartell. Initially, the lessons were only open to Brenau students, but after ANU seniors and graduates came on board as tutors, the program opened up to everyone at Brenau.

“What I’m hoping is that this will be a bridging activity,” Bartell said. “When the students get here, they’ll already know people and have something in common.”

Not only did the lessons help the Chinese students meet people from Brenau, it also helped them learn by preparing lessons and practicing their English. This was especially beneficial to Wang and Zhang, who are early childhood education majors.

“I learned that if you want to teach foreigners to learn Chinese, you need to start with easy words, then go to phrases and, finally, sentences,” Wang said. “Starting with some commonly used Chinese words are better, such as numbers 1-10, ‘hello,’ ‘thank you,’ ‘goodbye’ and names of some classic Chinese food. We need to make our content easy, useful and interesting at the beginning.”

Since the lessons are virtual, online resources have been valuable in teaching the classes. This format has been helpful to Zhang.

“I like teaching and interacting with Brenau staff and students virtually,” she said. “Although I’m in China now, I can learn what is happening in the U.S. and at Brenau. I also like to share what happens in my life. This brings my students and I closer together.

When I teach the lessons, I can learn about their Chinese language preferences, and they have access to a lot of online resources about Chinese. I share interesting websites and videos about Chinese with my students, and they can easily see and hear Chinese through them.”

Sydney Hencil, senior mass communication major from Zimbabwe, is president of Brenau’s International Club and decided to take lessons to learn more about the Chinese language and culture.

“It’s been fun,” Hencil said. “I’m learning a lot. It’s so cool once you really start diving in and learning how specific words came to be.”

Through the lessons, the Chinese and American students have also realized they have many shared interests.

“We were on the food lesson, and Erik and Hayley started talking about boba and bubble tea,” Hencil said. “That’s really big in America right now, and they said people in China love it as well. During this lesson we kept going on and on about bubble tea. Hayley and I click a lot. Some of our lessons can be funny.”

Barbara Steinhaus, chair of the music department, has taken a special interest in how the Chinese form words.

“I teach Chinese students, and it was my hope that these lessons would help me understand them better,” Steinhaus said. “And it has. We’ve been climbing into how you pronounce different words, and I understand why certain tongue positions and pronunciations come more easily to my students in music and why some are more difficult.”

Brenau’s international student population continues to grow with the addition of partnerships with countries like Panama, which recently sent 16 students to Brenau to learn English and earn degrees. Steinhaus said the virtual lessons have better prepared her for teaching not only Chinese students but other international students as well.

“How you pronounce words and the culture in your world is so identity-embedding,” she said. “And if you can understand that about a person, you really understand them better.”

Bartell said Zhang and Wang have agreed to continue the Chinese lessons through the fall semester. Some of the Chinese rising seniors will be on the Brenau campus in the fall, so some lessons may be in-person depending on availability. Those interested in taking the lessons should contact Wang at pwang@tiger.brenau.edu.