Chinese Made Easy?
Matt Jones ’13 perches on a stool in a Moharimet classroom, turning a bright, plastic beach ball in his hands. Scanning the semicircle of middle school students in front of him, he asks a question in Chinese and tosses the ball to ponytailed brunette, who thinks for a minute and then responds in hesitating Chinese. Jones grins and nods. “Dui!” he says – correct. The girl beams and sends the ball back.
Four evenings a week, while his peers are relaxing or considering their dinner choices at Holloway Commons, Jones teaches Chinese classes at the One World Language School, a Durham-based non-profit that offers French, German, and Spanish in addition to Mandarin Chinese. His students range from kindergarten-aged beginners through tenth grade “college prep” students, and from the mildly curious to those deeply engaged with the notoriously difficult language. Clean cut and distinctly American, Jones is the only non-native Chinese teacher employed by One World.
Jones took his first Chinese class at UNH, shortly after settling on a political science and international affairs dual major. International affairs majors are required to choose a concentration in one country and its language; Jones picked Chinese on a whim. “I thought it would be easy,” he laughs, “because it doesn’t have any conjugations.” It didn't take long for Jones to grasp what makes Chinese hard: it also doesn’t have an alphabet, but instead relies on a vocabulary of some 10,000 discrete words, all of which are represented by unique characters.
His junior year, Jones took his UNH Chinese to Beijing – a world away from his tiny hometown of Orange, N.H. (population 300) in every way imaginable. Studying through a Washington, D.C. based immersion program, Jones spent 15 weeks a half-hour taxi ride outside of the city proper, living with a Chinese roommate and taking all of his classes in Chinese. “I thought my Chinese was pretty good until I got over there,” he recalls. “You learn to up your game really fast, though, when knowing the language is the only way to get a drink of water or a meal.”
Having taken all the Chinese language classes UNH offers, Jones tries to maintain his fluency by engaging with Mandarin speakers whenever possible – and the four weeknights he spends teaching with One World also help. To keep the hour-long classes fun and productive, he employs a wide variety of games and techniques. There’s the famous “fly swatter” game, where two students race to be the first to identify a Chinese word written on a whiteboard, “swatting” the correct character out of half a dozen possible options. There are skits and conversational exchanges, in which Jones doesn’t hesitate to take on an exaggerated, comedic role. There’s that beach ball technique for calling on students. And then there’s the inherent humor that comes with working in a language where a change in tone changes a word’s meaning entirely, often giving rise to sentences that draw as big a laugh from Jones as his students.
Those students think he’s great – energetic and funny – and One World director Julie Reece, a Chinese speaker whose daughter is in Jones’ intermediate class at Moharimet, has nothing but praise for his work. “We had originally expected to only have Matt teach one or two classes a week,” she explains, “but he’s so good, and the students respond so well to him, that he’s taken on a full course load.”
Prior to One World, Jones’ teaching experience was limited to his work as a program leader for the UNH Outing Club, but he can see the parallels between, say, coaxing an exhausted hiker through the last couple miles of a trek and encouraging young, occasionally frustrated students of Chinese. Shortly after he graduates in May, he’ll be taking on Chinese teaching from the other side of the equation, returning to China for a year to teach English to native Mandarin speakers. After that, he hopes to return to the U.S. to pursue a master’s degree in international affairs. As for the longer term, he is confident that, no matter what his path, a good deal of his future will unfold in China – ideally, working as a foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department.
One thing Jones won’t do, however, is see his extensive credentials in Mandarin on his UNH diploma. Notwithstanding his language skills and his time in Beijing, “would you believe I don’t have enough credits for an Asian studies minor?" he laughs.
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