Hannah McGee talks excitedly and laughs about one of the benefits of her “secret language.”
Whenever she’s bothered by nosy boys on the bus or at swim practice, “I just speak Chinese with my friends and the others don’t know what we’re saying,” she says. “It’s really fun.”
But Hannah takes her uncanny talent very seriously. An 8-year-old second-grader at Waddell Language Academy, she recently won her division at the Confucius Institute Chinese Speech Contest at N.C. State University, defeating many students nearly twice her age – and size.
“I can’t tell you how proud we were at that competition and seeing her standing there with what looked like giants compared to her,” says her father, Sam McGee.
Hannah’s mother, Marci McGee, says her daughter amazes people when she’s ordering at a Chinese restaurant – or during visits to Chinatown in Chicago and New York City. “Native Chinese people have told me after hearing Hannah speak that if she were standing behind a wall and talking to you, they would swear it was a grown woman born in China,” she says.
The latest challenge
Just to make the finals of the Confucius Institute competition was an accomplishment. According to Hannah’s mom, she started by filling out an application and a questionnaire, along with sending a video in which she spoke Chinese. The 153 entrants were placed in the beginner, intermediate or advanced level based on their video submission, questionnaire and how long they’ve been learning Chinese.
Hannah made the top 10 as the youngest finalist in the intermediate division at the May 4 event in Raleigh. For the competition, she prepared a three-minute Chinese speech, during which she talked about learning the language in school. She also had to answer questions from a six-judge panel that included two judges from the institute and four from area colleges.
“One of the questions from the judges was how many Chinese characters do I know,” says Hannah, in her third year of studying Chinese. “I’m not 100 percent sure exactly, so I said 200. I just guessed.
“I wasn’t nervous and was excited because I knew I had a good teacher, and I had worked really hard on having the correct tones in my speech.”
Her teacher at Waddell, Hong Zhang, says Hannah is in her top group of students – an especially impressive distinction given the challenging subject matter. Asked why she’s wanted to learn Chinese since kindergarten, Hannah shrugs and says: “Because I knew it was the hardest language.”
Part of Chinese’s complexity involves identifying and repeating subtle tonal differences. Hannah says some of her competitors at the state competition “were saying every single character in the first tone. I was talking in the fourth tone.”
She gave an example of the four tones, each using the sound of “e” but with different inflections and durations. Each intonation means something different in the language.
“It’s really hard for older ones and adults to pronounce certain things,” her teacher says. Adds Hannah’s mom: “I don’t know the exact science on this, but there’s something I read where certain brain connections actually close as you get older, so it’s very hard as a high school student to hear and distinguish certain sounds and then replicate them. When their brains are younger their connections are still forming, so it’s easier to distinguish the subtle differences in tone.”
Marci McGee says she still can’t understand the vast majority of what Hannah says in Chinese, and can’t read any of it. “I can’t help her with her homework. I can check it and see if it’s done neatly, but that’s it.”
‘Very natural ability’
Many language experts say it’s easier for kids to learn a foreign language at a young age because their native language hasn’t been embedded in their speaking and writing for as long. Hannah has even more advantages, courtesy of her schooling at Waddell: She’s taught only by native speakers and is in a full-immersion program in which she learns all of her subjects in Chinese, except for 45 minutes of English each day.
Her dad says she has some gifts that can’t be taught.
“She has a very natural ability to hear the language – understanding what other people say, then giving it back to them, even when a native speaker says it,” he says. “She’s already better now with Chinese than I was with learning Italian when I was in my 20s.”
Marci McGee cites other pluses of Hannah’s immersion in Chinese. “She sees the importance of respect and being polite, and having high standards.” She remembered when her daughter got one question wrong on a test and wasn’t satisfied until she got them all right the next time.
But Hannah’s not consumed with perfection; she’s very much enjoying the life of typical 8-year-old. She read from a paper she wrote in Chinese about the fun things she wants to do this summer (she likes writing Chinese more than speaking it because it’s harder for her, she says). She wants to swim and go to the beach a lot.
Hannah’s 5-year-old brother, Brooks, also wants to learn Chinese, their mom says.
Hannah has talked about learning Japanese when she reaches middle-school age. And naturally, she wants to go to China someday.
“I would try to go to a whole bunch of Chinese restaurants,” she says. “I know they have dumplings, but I don’t know about that many other things.”
Hannah says she doesn’t plan on speaking Chinese around the house a lot this summer, but accidents happen.
“One night I was putting her to bed a couple weeks ago,” her dad says. “She always says her prayers, and she actually lapsed into Chinese.
“And then she starts laughing and asks, ‘Does God understand Chinese?’ I said, ‘Well, sure.’ And then she said, ‘Does God understand every language?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ She said, ‘Dad, if He was on Earth He’d be really famous.’ ”
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