They repeated after her, paying careful attention to her tone: Ni hao ma? Ni jiao shenme mingzi?
How are you? What is your name?
Although enrollment is low, headmaster Tim Johnston said students are enjoying the classes in Mandarin Chinese that Beaufort Academy began offering last year.
“We feel that even though it may be ahead of its time in a small town like Beaufort, it's definitely being done in places like Chicago, Atlanta,” Johnston said. “I hope that the school, students and the community see that it's not impossible to learn Chinese.”
In May 2006, Johnston recommended the academy begin offering a Chinese language class.
China is home to 1.3 billion people, or about 20 percent of the world's population. Its economy is the fastest-growing in the world, and Asian markets play a major role in the global economy, said Peter Trau, head of the high school at Beaufort Academy.
“People are going to be doing business in China, whether you like it or not,” Trau said.
Johnston was preparing to conduct a national search for a Chinese teacher willing to relocate to South Carolina when he received a letter from Claire Yang.
Yang, a native of China, explained she had recently moved to South Carolina after marrying a man from Ridgeland. She told Johnston she taught English in China for years and was looking for a job here.
Johnston interviewed her, and she agreed to work part-time until a four-year language program takes off. She began teaching five students in Chinese 1 in August 2007.
Yang now teaches five students in Chinese 2 and three others in a one-year introduction to Mandarin. Johnston said he's also considered asking her to teach enrichment classes to elementary and middle school students in the future. About 110 students attend the high school at Beaufort Academy.
Peter Olsson, a sophomore in the Chinese 2 class, said he hopes to study political science in college and work in social affairs or conflict resolution – a major that might require language skills.
“Mandarin Chinese, it's only mildly relevant in South Carolina,” Olsson said. “But I'll continue with it because it will be relevant in college.”
Mandarin is a tonal language, which means that tones – not just consonants and vowels – are used to distinguish words. Correct tonal pronunciation is necessary because some Chinese words only differ by the way they are pronounced.
Yang said she enjoys teaching this pronunciation to students because it is something so new to English-speakers.
Olsson said learning to read characters and understand that different tones can change the meaning of words was difficult at first.
“A lot of the class is repetition, pounding it into your head,” he said.