Montessori Moments

July 26, 2009

How Do You Say “Respect” in Mandarin?

The assistant teacher who started working in the classroom four weeks ago is a native Mandarin Chinese speaker, and talks with the children only in that language.  In the short time he’s been there, he has been able to bond with the summer school children because I was on vacation.  Most of the children think he doesn’t speak or understand English, and the few (older) children who doubt his monolingualism think that he only understands a few words.

When I returned to the classroom, I was pleasantly surprised to find a group of preschoolers who not only understood Mandarin, but who would spontaneously burst into song in perfectly-articulated “putong hua”.  One of their favorite games was to point to something and ask me “Zhe shi shenme?” (What is that?), to which I consistently answered “Wo bu zhi dao” (I don’t know).  After giggling at my obvious ineptitude, they would respond in Mandarin with the name of the item they were pointing to.  Ah, the joys of the absorbent mind…

Realizing the importance of what was happening in the classroom, I made it a goal to learn a few phrases in Mandarin so that I, too, could communicate with my assistant in his native tongue.  My objective was to show the children that we must respect people from all cultures and not think that because our language is spoken around the world we are exempt from widening our horizons.  Nothing irks me more than Americans who travel abroad and make no effort to communicate in the language of the land they’re visiting.  I’d be darned if my students would grow up to behave in such a disrespectful manner.

One day, as the children and I sat around the elipse in preparation for lunchtime, I composed a sentence in shaky and ill-pronounced Mandarin to inform the assistant of a change in our routine.  Realizing my struggle, one of the children asked me why I didn’t speak to the assistant in English.  I replied that he did not speak that language, and I was about to say that in any case, it was important to make an effort to speak to foreigners in their language if possible.  However, I was interrupted by a precocious five-year old  American boy who stated that “you should always try to speak to people in their language, it’s the respectful thing to do.”

The assistant teacher and I looked at each other, our eyes wide and our hearts swelling with pride.  The assistant looked at this child and softly thanked him in Chinese.

The boy nodded curtly with the dignity of someone ten times his age and gave the appropriate reply in perfect, three-week old Mandarin: “Bu ke qi, Mr. Chang”.

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