Local women teach Chinese to children

MIDDLEBURY — Friends May Poduschnick and Joanna Doria have routinely impressed folks with the simple act of speaking Chinese with their respective children.
“People have told me for a long time, ‘You should teach Chinese,’” Poduschnick said.
She found the suggestion flattering, but couldn’t imagine how she’d be able to balance her parental duties with a teaching career — until recently. Poduschnick and Doria are rounding out the first year of their new venture called “Middlingo,” through which they teach basic Chinese language skills to area children, ages 3 to 12.
Middlingo has grown dramatically from a three family clientele to multiple after-school classes at both Mary Hogan Elementary School and at Bristol Elementary School, in partnership with the Expanded Learning Program and the Addison County Homeschooling group.
And Middlingo in July capped its first-ever summer camp at the Aurora Learning Center in Middlebury, where children learned Chinese characters, sang and played games in Chinese, cooked and sampled Chinese cuisine, sipped tea at a teahouse, hiked and swam.
“I always wanted somewhere for my own children to learn to read and write Chinese and have seen there are other people interested in learning Chinese too,” Poduschnick said during a recent interview.
Poduschnick grew up in a household in which Chinese was primarily spoken. She’s taught English to high school age students in Hong Kong and China and has tutored elementary-aged students in Chinese for multiple years. Poduschnick has maintained her fluency and has made sure her four children develop an appreciation for Chinese language and culture.
Doria has two children of her own. She grew up speaking Mandarin Chinese with her Taiwanese mother and has been traveling to Taiwan consistently since she was 12. Doria studied Chinese at Colby College, then taught English for a year in Xiamen, China. She taught Chinese for five years at a private school in Connecticut.
The two met while attending some children’s functions in Middlebury.
“I was immediately drawn to (May) because of the Chinese connection,” Doria said. “Chinese has been a big part of my life. I heard (Poduschnick) speak Chinese with (her son), and I was immediately drawn to it.”
The two friends knew they wanted to use their Chinese language talents in the professional world, but their options in Addison County were limited. Outside of Middlebury College, there isn’t much of a market for Chinese language educators.
So they chose to join forces to create their own language program.
“We decided to work together and make (Middlingo) come alive,” Doria said.
They quickly found some families who wanted their young children to get an introduction to Chinese, the most widely spoken language in the world. But Chinese has developed a reputation as being difficult to speak and learn; there are more than 3,000 characters in the Chinese alphabet.
Still, Poduschnick and Doria contend Chinese can become accessible to anyone willing to learn the basics, and above all, stick with it.
“The thing with Mandarin is, as you start to understand it, it’s a very logical language,” Doria said. “There aren’t a lot of irregularities. Once you get the foundation of how to learn it, it becomes easier.”
Since the vast majority of their students are young and have had no prior Chinese language training, Middlingo sticks to the basics. Children are taught the Chinese words for colors, fruit, numbers up to 100, family members, basic greetings and other things common to everyday life.
Doria and Poduschnick specifically chose young children as their student base in part because kids tend to absorb new languages more readily than adults.
“They have a better ear for it and can pick it up more easily,” Poduschnick said.
A discerning ear is particularly important when it comes to learning Chinese, according to Doria. There are four distinct pronunciation tones, as well as a neutral tone, used in speaking Mandarin.
“The goal isn’t to make them fluent readers and writers,” Poduschnick said. But she and Doria want their young charges to enjoy their Middlingo experience enough to want to continue studying Chinese.
“We want the children to want to learn,” Poduschnick stressed. “We’re not babysitting them.”
Poduschnick is a firm believer that visual props and simple songs are great tools in helping children learn and retain material. Parents are pretty darned impressed when their kids suddenly break into a Mandarin version of the old standard tune, “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”
“Somehow, it’s easier with song,” Poduschnick said with a smile.
In fact, Middlingo offers families CDs with songs to practice.
“They listen to it in the car and the parents are trying to sing along,” Doria said. “(Parents) say, ‘We have no idea what we’re saying, but we’re singing along.’”
It’s empowering for the children to lay some knowledge on their parents.
“I think the best part is when the students are teaching their families,” Poduschnick said.
And soon, Middlingo won’t just be the Doria and Poduschnick show.
This fall brings a new partnership between Middlingo and a Middlebury College student group called “Project Pengyou,” whose aim is to encourage cross-cultural dialogue, friendship, and understanding between the United States and China. The organization holds occasional special events, along with monthly storytelling sessions that highlight shared experiences to personalize U.S.-China relations.
Project Pengyou students recently agreed to help teach Middlingo classes. The collaboration will allow children to benefit from the linguistic skills of the Middlebury students, who in turn get a chance to practice what they’ve been learning in the classroom.
“It seemed like a perfect fit for students that have studied Chinese or are Chinese speakers themselves to share their knowledge with the local community and share their understanding of Chinese culture,” Middlebury College sophomore and Project Pengyou member Benjy Renton said through an email.
Poduschnick and Doria are pleased with the qualifications of the Project Pengyou students who have thus far offered to work with Middlingo.
“A lot of them have significant background, have studied abroad, or are native Chinese students,” Poduschnick said. “Some grew up in Hong Kong or have taken significant Chinese courses, enough to make me think that their Chinese might be better than mine.”
Barbara Ebling and her husband Matthew Gibbs of Brandon have three daughters — Amelia, Caledonia (Calle), and Olivia — who are all third-graders at the Neshobe School. The couple adopted Amelia and Olivia from China when they were 11 months old.
“Like many parents who adopt internationally, we’re learning how to balance what’s culturally unique about our twins, and how to just let them be kids,” Ebling said. “We want them to know about, honor and be proud of their Chinese heritage, but we don’t want to single them out because of it.”
Ebling and Gibbs knew Poduschnick from various playgroups in Middlebury. When she asked the couple if their girls might be interested in Middlingo, the answer was “definitely,” according to Ebling.
All three of the Ebling/Gibbs girls will be attending a Middlingo class this year.
“May and Joanna have done a wonderful job of incorporating fun music and movement activities, such as dancing to songs that name parts of the body,” Ebling said. “They’ve created lessons about special holidays, cultural traditions, and cuisine. There is also a solid academic component of the class, including the study and practice of Chinese characters.”
For more information about Middlingo, check out middlingo.com.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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