Shi, je parle Francais!

Alumna funds an innovative peer-tutoring program to help Chinese students succeed.

“It’s like an English speaker learning Japanese in Mandarin.”

That’s how Professor Nadine de Moras describes the challenge that faces Chinese students in Brescia’s beginner French class. And that’s why she developed an innovative tutoring program to help them. Thanks to Brescia student and tutor Ying Chen and donor Diane Teetzel, ’64 the successful program continues to grow.

A native of France, Professor de Moras has taught at Brescia since 2006. Recognizing that learning a second language takes a lot of practice, de Moras has introduced several strategies to help her students develop their skills. In 2016, she hired Ying Chen, a Chinese student in the third year of the French program, as a work-study student.

She saw an opportunity to help a group that needed special attention – students whose first language is Mandarin or Cantonese learning French for the first time.

“All Indo-European languages are related,” she explains. “It’s ten times easier for an English speaker to learn French or even Russian, than for a Chinese speaker to learn English or French.” Several studies have demonstrated the benefit of using the learner’s native language to teach a second language, especially at the beginner stage. Even basic vocabulary can present unexpected challenges. For example, there is no word in Mandarin for sister or brother, which makes learning the French sœur and frère more difficult.

Ying began offering tutoring in October 2016. While help was available to all students taking the class, most of the eleven Chinese students in Brescia’s beginner French class took up the offer, several of them visiting Ying on a regular basis. “I worked with them mostly on pronunciation and grammar,” she says. “Our grammar is so different from French grammar – I helped them to connect the two, and to understand the cultural context.” She also went over their class notes and worked with them to prepare for tests and exams.

By Christmas break, all the funding for Ying’s services had been used up. Reluctant to end the program, de Moras went looking for more funding. “I knocked on every door, trying to find a way to continue it.”

That’s where alumna Diane Teetzel came in. The project was a perfect
fit for Teetzel. She has a strong connection to Brescia – her mother and two aunts attended the University and she followed them. She also has family in France. Intrigued by what she heard about the program, she provided funding so that Ying could continue tutoring the Chinese students.

But her contribution went much deeper. After a visit to campus, she formed a close friendship with Ying.
“As soon as I met her I knew that this young lady was something very special,” she says. “Her knowledge and love of the language just exudes from her. I’m sure she’s having a tremendous impact on the girls she tutors.”

The tutoring program was remarkably effective. In the 2015-2016 school year, the grades of Chinese students in beginner French were 10 to 15% lower than those of English speakers. By the end of the 2016-2017-year, Chinese students received higher grades than the English speakers, with an average final grade of 82%. Says Ying, “I’m not surprised they made progress because they are very hardworking students – but I am surprised by such big progress!”

Two Chinese students from the class decided to pursue French in their second year. There are now 24 Chinese students in this year’s beginner French class, more than double the previous year. “Chinese students have always said French was hard,” says Ying. “But last year’s students told their friends that it was easy.”

de Moras wants to make the tutoring program a permanent fixture. “International students try their best to succeed, but often find it difficult because of language and cultural differences. If we give them extra help, it compensates for this disadvantage, and because they’re so serious about their studies, they can do very well.” Teetzel adds, “To me, this program is indicative of what Brescia is about – the education and empowerment of women.”