University of Minnesota instructor Zhen Zou listens to students conversing in Mandarin Chinese on Nov. 7. A program at the U of M pairs high school students, who've been lifelong learners of Chinese, with Chinese students at the university. Credit: Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

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This story comes to you from MPR News, a partner with Sahan Journal. We will be sharing stories between and

When Clare Murphy mentioned the phrase “hit the hay” in her Chinese language exchange class, some were confused and others were amused.

But Murphy thought what better way to teach American English to her fellow classmates — Chinese international students — than to incorporate idioms.

Murphy is one of 20 Chinese immersion graduates participating in a program at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus that allows high school students to practice Mandarin in a conversational setting with Chinese international students who are studying here in Minnesota.

Chinese immersion schools have been growing in popularity in Minnesota over the past decade. There are now eight schools across the state. But how those students maintain their language skills beyond elementary and middle school years is a challenge because there are no Chinese immersion high schools in the state.

This setup helps fill that gap. It’s an extension of a program at the U of M called TandemPlus, which pairs two people, mostly college students, to learn each other’s native language and culture. Nearly 500 students are part of the program this year, which includes speakers of Korean, Arabic, Japanese, Spanish, along with Chinese and other languages.

University leaders noticed that there were always more international students from China than Chinese learners to partner them with. That’s why they created this weekly face-to-face conversation two years ago and invited Chinese immersion graduates to share their native English skills and stretch their Mandarin muscles at the same time.

“So, we use the two groups’ native language as resources for the other group,” said instructor Zhen Zou, who’s developed a list of 20 topics for the students to cover during these sessions. They include sports, music and television. They’ve even discussed climate change — a topic that forced them to talk for a while.

“They say, during this session, they speak more Chinese than the whole week of Chinese classes of high school,” he said. “So, they’ve got a lot of opportunities to practice.”

Jill Griffiths’ signed her daughter, Jia, up for the program. A sophomore at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis and a graduate of Yinghua Academy, the first public charter Chinese immersion school in the country, Chinese has always been an important part of Jia’s identity.

“She was adopted as a toddler so I wanted to be able to keep the language alive for her,” Griffiths said. “She’s fluent and I think wherever you enroll your child in high school, it’s hard to find a place that will challenge them to the level they are after having eight or nine years of an immersion education in a language.”

The University of Minnesota draws thousands of students from China each year. Last year, Chinese international students made up 43 percent of the international student population, according to the International Students and Scholars Services.

Junyuan Xue came to Minnesota to study human resources from the same textbook authors she admires. Sitting at a table with high schooler Jingjing Munson, they talked about hobbies and interests.

Xue said this program is different from trying to learn English in an academic setting.

“Sometimes my classmates talk to each other, I cannot understand what they are talking and I’m afraid to disrupt them,” she said.

Her conversation partner Jingjing was adopted from China. When she visits the country, people expect her to know the language because of her race and ethnicity.

“I look Chinese, I am Chinese,” the 16-year-old high school junior said. “Even though I’m from there, I don’t feel like I’m from there because I’ve grown up here my whole life. To be able to not have a language barrier is super important.”

Students split the class to chat in English half the time, and Chinese the other half.

When instructor Zhen Zou tells everyone it’s time to go, it’s not always easy for everyone to cut the conversation short.

Riham Feshir

Riham Feshir is a senior reporter at MPR News covering race, class and communities. Feshir is the co-creator of 74 Seconds, an innovative podcast that covered the first-ever trial of a Minnesota police...