Building Friendships Through Virtual Language Exchange -中美学友汇 by Andrea Levan

Skype video calls allow for more organic, interpersonal conversations.

Within the current state of U.S.-China relations, educational and cultural exchange has never been more important for building mutual understanding. Ms. Huisi Zhao , a Chinese teacher at Dayton Regional STEM School (DRSS) in Kettering, Ohio, wanted to create a language exchange project that would do just that–bring together American and Chinese students to learn each other’s language and make way for lasting friendships.

Prior to this undertaking, Ms. Zhao had carried out a pen pal project, which had her class partner up with Chinese students in their same age group and communicate with them through email. Ms. Zhao believed, however, fostering stronger connections could not be achieved through email exchanges alone. Instead, incorporating Skype video calls would allow students to have more organic, interpersonal conversations.

With this idea in mind, Ms. Zhao needed to find a high school in China that had the same interest. With the help of former USHCA Executive Director, Patrick McAloon, Ms. Zhao got in contact with Guangdong Chen from the Hubei Education Bureau to help connect her with a school in Hubei province, a strong sister-state of Ohio since 1979. Soon enough, Ms. Zhao met with Mr. Jiang, the director of the international department of Shiyan #1 Middle School in Hubei, and jump-started the project.

After three months of preparation, Ms. Zhao’s and Mr. Jiang’s Knowing Chinese Study Partners project debuted in December of 2019. Ms. Zhao’s students and high school students from Shiyan began communicating weekly via Skype video calls and emails. Ms. Zhao would give her students a few sets of topics to focus on, but conversations were largely left up to the students. This gave them free rein to bring up topics ranging from K-pop to popular video games, all while learning how to communicate and work out schedule conflicts with their Chinese language partners on their own.

Students share their quarantine experiences

“Live chats really bring people together. They help create connections instantly and efficiently. Having my students schedule their live chats with their partners hold them accountable, and they learn how to be patient,” Ms. Zhao noted.

However, issues of miscommunication and time difference were not the only obstacles they had to face. COVID-19 took Hubei province by storm as news of the outbreak in Wuhan, the province’s capital, surfaced in early January, and Shiyan’s students were directly affected. Apart from talking about their interests and hobbies, the study partners from Shiyan would share news on how the virus has been affecting students all over China and their experiences living in quarantine.

As the project surged on, Ms. Zhao was glad to see her students actively engage and support their study partners through such difficult times. Their compassion and curiosity would blossom–her students would check in with their language partners and some even asked how the outdoors were from their apartment windows.

As news of the pandemic began surfacing across the U.S., the connections made through weekly language exchanges grew even stronger. Lessons on wearing masks and social distancing from their study partners in Shiyan became a new reality for Ms. Zhao’s students. One of her students expressed,

“We got to hear more about the experiences [our study partners] had, and what would soon come to us…It wasn’t something you would find on the news, it was different and interesting to hear about other students around the world that were our age experiencing a global event like this.”

Knowing Chinese Study Partners went on until the end of March, but some of Ms. Zhao’s students continue to stay in contact with their language partners. The project proved to be a great success, and Ms. Zhao’s students came out with a greater command of Mandarin Chinese and a wider outlook on the world. Ms. Zhao hopes to share her experiences with other teachers and expand upon the project for a greater number of American students learning Mandarin.

When asked about the project’s overall results, Zhao exclaimed, “Especially during these historic times, being a part of Chinese class taught my students about COVID-19 from their study partners’ perspective and experiences. Through this project, my students learned a lot of social skills, life skills, and how to get along with people around the world. As a global language teacher, I really want my students to see the whole world, not just the small part where they grew up. I encourage them to always go out to see something new and make new friends along the way.”

A greater command of Mandarin Chinese and a wider outlook on the world

Knowing Chinese Study Partners went on until the end of March, but some of Ms. Zhao’s students continue to stay in contact with their language partners. The project proved to be a great success, and Ms. Zhao’s students came out with a greater command of Mandarin Chinese and a wider outlook on the world. Ms. Zhao hopes to share her experiences with other teachers and expand upon the project for a greater number of American students learning Mandarin.

When asked about the project’s overall results, Zhao exclaimed,

“Especially during these historic times, being a part of Chinese class taught my students about COVID-19 from their study partners’ perspective and experiences. Through this project, my students learned a lot of social skills, life skills, and how to get along with people around the world. As a global language teacher, I really want my students to see the whole world, not just the small part where they grew up. I encourage them to always go out to see something new and make new friends along the way.”

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