At Steel Valley High School last week, students stood and imitated instructor Sunny Yang as she made her arms into number shapes and said those numbers aloud in Mandarin.
The place was the classroom of French teacher Toni Besh, and the event was a new after-school class in Mandarin Chinese being taken by 18 students.
Ms. Besh supervises the class and Ms. Yang teaches and interacts with the students via two-way teleconferencing from A.W. Beattie Career Center in McCandless.
Ms. Yang came from Wuhan University in China, which is a partner with the University of Pittsburgh in its Confucius Institute. The institute seeks to provide high-quality Chinese language instruction to middle and high school students in Western Pennsylvania.
Pitt's two Confucius Institute satellite campuses are at the Beattie center and at Saint Vincent College in Unity.
Students in 11 Allegheny County school districts -- including North Hills, Avonworth, Pine-Richland and Northgate -- and four Westmoreland County districts -- New Kensington-Arnold, Kiski Area, Greensburg Salem and Latrobe -- take part in the program.
It is the first year for the class at Steel Valley. The instruction is provided at no cost to school districts.
Last week, Ms. Yang's teaching style was vigorous and energetic as she had the students repeat vowel and consonant combinations from a chart on her wall.
"Ba ba nee chow ma [good work]," she told students with two thumbs up after they had pronounced many sounds correctly.
She told them that in addition to learning the vowel and the word, the students should learn its written Chinese character.
Languages such as English, Spanish, French and German are intonational. That means the tone, or pitch, of a word doesn't change its meaning.
Mandarin, on the other hand, is a tonal language. Pronouncing the syllable "ma" in the four tones of Mandarin changes the meaning of the syllable from "Mom," to a horse, a hemp plant or a bad scolding.
The students -- who are sophomores, juniors and seniors -- explained why they are taking the difficult language.
"I feel like learning a new language would be great for my career," senior Codell Cutrary said.
He has already taken four years of Spanish and said he believes Mandarin will be useful to him in his planned career as a hotel manager.
Senior Sarah Barnett said Chinese may someday be a language spoken in the United States.
"It's going to be cool to be able to talk to people we meet," she said.
After she started taking the class, junior Sarah Faulds said she was surprised by "how many different words the tones make."
Trevon Murtaza, a sophomore, said he is taking the class "because I'm a fan of Asian culture."
"I think learning this opens so many doors to the world, because you're able to communicate with so many more people," senior Hannah Fallon said.
"I think the reason why I do it is because I like a challenge," sophomore Denis McCormick said.
The students said Mandarin Chinese could someday be useful to them in a number of professions, including translation, medicine and banking, among others.
Anne Cloonan, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published October 10, 2013 12:57 AM