AT 11.30am on a Sunday morning the York Chinese School is in full swing. Class 2 are doing some basic vocabulary work on how to buy fruit and vegetables in Chinese.
Teacher Lei Li has been using a basket of fake fruit and veg to get the children to remember the names.
“Zhe shi shenme? (what’s this?)” she asks, holding up a piece of plastic fruit.
“A pineapple!” one boy calls out.
“Shuo zhongwen!” Mrs Li says – speak Chinese!
“Bolo!” the boy says, giving the correct Chinese name.
She holds up more fruit, and the children shout out the Chinese names in turn. Xiangjiao (banana); juzi (orange); xihongshi (tomato); tudou (potato).
Having refreshed the children’s memory, Mrs Li then sets up a roleplay task in which they’ll have to go to a shop to buy a basket of fruit and veg that will meet their ‘five-a-day’ recommendation.
First, she drills the children in some basic Chinese sentences.
The shopkeeper will ask a customer what they want, she says. “Ni hao, ni yao mai shenme?” (Hello, what would you like to buy?) The children repeat after her: “Ni hao, ni yao mai shenme?”
Lei Li teaching Class 2
The customer will then have to ask for something. “Wo yao mai yi jin pingguo” – I want to buy half a kilo of apples. And they’ll need to check the price, too. “Yi jin pingguo, duoshao qian?” – how much is a kilo of apples?
Mrs Li demonstrates the sentences, and asks the children to repeat after her. There’s one word – yi jin, or one jin - which the children haven’t yet learned.
Mrs Li asks them what they think it might mean. Hands shoot up. “A bag!” someone guesses.
Mrs Li shakes her head.
“100 grammes!” someone else calls out.
Close, Mrs Li says. Yi jin is actually half a kilo.
Language rehearsed, it is time for the roleplay. Amid much excitement, the children split up into groups to practice, taking it in turn to be shopkeeper and customer. Then there are performances in front of the whole class, which involve a plastic cash register, a plastic shopping basket, heaps of plastic fruit and veg – and much hilarity.
Children - including Albert Obi, second from left - studying Chinese character flashcards
The class ends with some reading to calm things down. The children take it in turns to read out short Chinese sentences on the whiteboard, while Mrs Li corrects pronunciation. It is clear that many of these children can already read dozens of Chinese characters.
That’s not surprising. Class 2 is the most advanced of the three classes at the York Chinese School.
The school, which was started just over a year ago by businessman Will Zhuang, his wife Jean, and Mrs Li, who is the school’s headteacher, runs every Sunday morning during term-time in classrooms rented at Archbishop Holgate’s School.
It is already proving popular, with 40 children spread across three classes: a pre-school class for children aged three-and-a-half to five; Class 1 for beginners aged six to 10; and Class 2 for more advanced children agedsix to 12.
Many – though by no means all – of the children are obviously from a Chinese background. So why do they need to come to school to learn Chinese?
Will Zhuang at the York Chinese School
Will explains. He and his wife have lived in York, where he works as an accountant and also used to run a B&B, for many years. Their two children Rachael, 10, and Liam, eight, have grown up speaking English as their main language.
“In my family, most of the time we speak English,” he says. “My wife speaks Chinese to them, but they’d rather speak English with me.”
That’s understandable enough: most of the children’s schoolfriends are English, and they want to fit in.
But as they get older, Will says, he knows they’ll want to know more about their parents’ language and culture. The problem is, it is very hard for parents to teach their own children.
Ming Tang, whose daughter Hannah comes to the Chinese school every Sunday, agrees She did actually train as a teacher once, Mrs Tang says – but she taught maths, not Chinese. “So it is very difficult for me to teach Chinese.”
Hannah Tang learning to write Chinese with the help of a teaching assistant
She thinks it is important for her daughter to learn both English and Chinese – which is why Hannah comes to the Chinese school. “It is very good for her,” Mrs Tang says. “We go back home to China every year, and she can speak some Chinese.”
There is a small but growing Chinese population in York. Many of the parents have had the same problem as Will Zhuang and Mrs Tang: they want their children to speak English and integrate into local schools – but they also want them to learn some Chinese, too. Hence the York Chinese School.
Not all the children at the school are from Chinese backgrounds, however.
In Class 2 are brother and sister Jacob and Hana – who are very British. They lived with their parents in China for five years – and their mum Sarah says she’s very keen for them to keep on studying Chinese now that they have returned.
Jacob in class. Learning Chinese is an 'amazing opportunity', says his mum Sarah
“This is an amazing opportunity for them to keep that going,” she says. “We were looking for somewhere where they could do that, and we were so pleased when we found the school. They love it!”
Another non-Chinese student at the school is Albert Obi. Albert has always loved learning, his dad Peter says: he learned the Russian alphabet when he was five.
Then he met a Chinese friend – and decided he wanted to learn Chinese. He found the York Chinese School himself: and hasn’t looked back.
“I started about a year ago,” the eight-year-old says. “I really like Chinese, and can write quite a few characters now.”
Will Zhuang is hoping that more English children will soon start learning Chinese. After Easter, he’s hoping to launch a fourth children’s class – this one to be held on a Saturday, and to be aimed at complete beginners. “The idea is that we will be able to teach them from zero,” he says.
So if you think your child might like to learn to speak a bit of Chinese, now’s your chance.
Children listen to their teacher pronouncing Chinese words
Jacob and Hana’s mum Sara can’t recommend it too highly.
“It’s a great language to learn,” she says.
“And if they start learning when they are young, it’s a real opportunity for them.”
THE YORK CHINESE SCHOOL
The York Chinese School teaches Mandarin, the Chinese dialect which is China’s official language, and which is widely spoken across the north of China and by many Chinese people overseas.
Each class is taught by a qualified teacher – for example Mrs Li, who teaches Class 2, has a masters degree in education from the University of Edinburgh and is a part-time lecturer at Leeds Beckett University.
In addition there is also at least one teaching assistant with each class – often a student studying for a masters degree at the University of York.
Children are taught speaking and listening, as well as how to read and write Chinese characters – Chinese does not use an alphabet, but has a pictorial-style written form more like ancient Egyptian.
Lin Kaidi from Selby learning to write Chinese characters at the school
“Children need about 3,000 characters to be able to read and write properly,” Mrs Li says.
Fees for a term of teaching – 11 one-hour lessons – are £75. To find out more about the York Chinese School visit www.yorkchinese.org (the website is in both English and Chinese: click on the language you prefer), or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
CHINESE NEW YEAR
Chinese New Year falls on January 28 this year. It is at a slightly different time each year, because it is based on a lunar calendar.
This new year will be the Year of the Rooster. Roosters, according to the Chinese zodiac, are supposed to be observant, hardworking, resourceful, courageous and talented, as well as confident in themselves.
There are 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, so the year of the rooster comes around every 12 years. If you were born later than February in 2005, 1993, 1981, 1969, 1957 or 1945, or 1933 you'll be a Rooster.
There will be a special Chinese New Year Gala to celebrate the start of the Year of the Rooster at the York Barbican from 7pm on Friday February 3. The evening, organised by the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, will include Chinese songs and dances (including a performance by children from the York Chinese School), a live band and a fashion show, as well as acrobatics and Chinese martial arts.
Tickets from £16.80 (adults) and £13.44 (students). To find out more, visit yorkbarbican.co.uk/whats-on/chinese-new-year-gala/