Switching Languages on the Plane

By Heidi Steele

We are now officially half way through our first annual two-way student exchange with Mudanjiang No. 1 High School! The four Chinese students and their teacher arrived in Seattle on July 21, having spent four days in San Francisco on the way. The next ten days were spent in the homes of their American partners. The parents planned the activities, which included a balance of group outings and get-togethers, along with plenty of unstructured time with individual families. I also arranged three two-hour English classes for the Chinese students. The teacher used a variety of lively and collaborative activities to give the students a feel for American teaching methods and to help them with spoken, extemporaneous communication.

During the U.S. portion of the exchange, we all spoke in English with the Chinese students and teacher to give them an immersive experience. The Chinese and American students know that immersion in my view does not mean speaking in the target language one hundred percent of the time. In the case of one of the Chinese students, his English was not strong enough to handle basic communication. For him it was extremely helpful that his partner had strong Chinese skills and could use his Chinese to help bridge the language barrier. I told the partner that I trusted his judgment about when and how to use Chinese to help his friend pick up English vocabulary and syntax.

Chinese and American students gather excitedly at the airport as they prepare to board the plane to China.

After the last English class, I met with all of the students and we talked about the fact that we would be switching languages from English to Chinese on the plane trip to Mudanjiang. I also acknowledged that the Chinese students in general had stronger English than our students’ Chinese, which meant that conversation would be more limited in China. (The difference in language levels is to be expected given that the Chinese students began studying English in elementary school, while our students didn’t begin their Chinese studies until high school.) Fortunately, the students already know each other pretty well, which means they should feel less frustration when communicating in Chinese.

In the months leading up to the trip, Ms. Guo, who is organizing the Chinese group, explained the dual-immersion model we would be following to the parents of the Chinese students so that they would not feel alarmed when they saw their students speaking primarily in Chinese with their American partners. They understand that the Chinese students already had “their turn,” and now it’s the American students’ turn for an immersive linguistic and cultural experience.

On August 1, we all boarded a plane in Seattle and flew together to Beijing. After spending a night in Beijing in transit, we arrived in Mudanjiang yesterday. So far, the students are handling the language switch well. Just as the Chinese students had three English classes while in the U.S., our students will have three Chinese classes here to give them a structured environment during which they can make some sense of the flood of new words coming at them from all sides. I am looking forward to seeing how the teacher chooses to work with our American students. Stay tuned.

A welcome banquet for the student exchange participants arriving in Mudanjiang.

More about this blog and author Heidi Steele.