Cheat Lake Elementary School hosts Chinese immersion camp

MORGANTOWN — Nothing begets awareness and empathy like shared communication.

Abdulbari Younis and Wayne Chen, for example, both enjoy numbers and computers.

And both of those (numbers and computers), have their own distinctly separate languages — to which fans and the befuddled, alike, will attest.

At Cheat Lake Elementary School on Wednesday morning, Abdulbari and Chen, kid and professor, respectively, were sharing another language.

What follows is a phonetic rendering of their chat in Mandarin Chinese:

Chen: “Knee how.” (Hello). “Knee how ma?” (How are you?)

Abdulbari: “Wa hen how, shu-shuni.” (I am fine, thank you).

Abdulbari is an 8-year-old who attends Morgantown’s North Elementary, known as the city’s “melting pot” school, given the international diversity of its students.

Chen, who grew up near Hong Kong and has been in the U.S. for 10 years, is a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

For the past week-and-a-half, both have been taking part in a unique enrichment camp hosted at Cheat Lake Elementary.

The STARTALK Chinese immersion camp, which is sponsored by Monongalia County Schools and the West Virginia Department of Education, wraps up Friday.

It came out of the National Security Language Initiative put into place by George W. Bush’s administration in 2006.

Debra Nicholson, who coordinates foreign language instruction for the state Department of Education, said a big motivation of STARTALK is to simply set up those little moments such as the one shared by Abdulbari and Chen.

As a language, Mandarin has a mystique, and it can be intimidating, Nicholson said.

That’s why she’s glad STARTALK is set up like the Spanish classes she taught for 28 years in Harrison County, at Bridgeport High School.

No endless memorizing and verb-conjugating, she said.

No stilted, overly formal phrasing with outdated references.

“I would always get my students to associate names and objects,” she said. “Lots of repetition, because that’s the only way you really learn a language.”

“Repetition,” was the watch-word Wednesday at Cheat Lake Elementary. That, and the (phonetic) “knee how.”

About 100 youngsters from across Morgantown and Monongalia County are taking part in this year’s camp, which includes six student volunteers and their teacher from Mudanjiang, China.

Chen is also an instructor this year.

While China’s government and the Trump administration are currently engaged in a burgeoning trade war, the STARTALK students at Cheat Lake didn’t know that.

Lesley Casey, who owns a local martial arts school with her husband, had to smile at the passport pedigrees of the people assembled for the day.

She didn’t start out being “local.” She was born in England, flew to the U.S. in her late teens and became a naturalized American citizen last February.

On Wednesday, she was leading youngsters through a round of tai chi, the ancient Chinese art that began as self-defense and evolved into a graceful meditation.

“How’s that for international diplomacy?” she asked, with just the slightest trace of a British accent.

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