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The ministry of language learning


Jeanette and Todd Hanson are Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers in China.

Education for children in China is compulsory—and expensive. Here some Chinese school children receive school kits sent by Mennonites overseas.


October 21, 2002

Winnipeg, Man.—Many international workers need to spend time learning a new language before they feel ready to start their work. Jeanette and Todd Hanson, however, see that language learning itself is a ministry and a vital part of their assignment with China Educational Exchange (CEE).

The two Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers live and work in Nanchong, China. Todd teaches English to high school and university students and Jeannette is developing social welfare programs including student sponsorships and speech therapy for deaf children in partnership with the Mennonite Central Committee's (MCC) Global Family Program.

"Learning Chinese is not preparation for witnessing, it is witnessing," said Todd. "Just wanting to learn about Chinese language and Chinese culture shows that you respect them, that you value what they value." In other words, it demonstrates love, "in the way we treat our colleagues and our students."

One Chinese pastor told them, "If you really want to do something in China, stay here for ten years, get to know us and then maybe we can share with each other."

In the meantime they do what they can. Jeanette worked with Wang Hong, a government worker assigned to work on rehabilitation for deaf and mute children. At first skeptical of its chances for success, Wang Hong has become a real believer in the program funded by MCC in partnership with CEE.

"At the beginning I didn't even believe this kind of thing was possible. But now I see progress in some of these children and really want to see that continue," said Wang Hong. Jeanette has taken special interest in making the learning materials relevant for country families, and works hard to convince discouraged parents that they can help their children learn to speak. She was also one of 100 people chosen from all of China to study speech therapy in Beijing and will use those skills to develop the program in other counties.

Jeanette also helps arrange sponsorships for Chinese children to attend school, which is compulsory but also expensive. Chen, an old man, has lost all family except two school-age granddaughters. In a culture where education and eventual employment are not seen as important for girls, this household faced bleak prospects. Through CEE's student sponsorship program the girls are now able to attend school, and have received MCC school kits. "You have given us hope. You have given us something for the future," said grandfather Chen, expressing his thanks to Jeanette.

For Todd, both learning Chinese and teaching English is a ministry. "My impression of what a student teacher relationship can be has changed a lot; the teacher and students can form a community where learning can take place in a very supportive environment."

"Teachers often share their lives with students in ways that you can't in other relationships."

Todd uses a peace-making oriented curriculum to open doors, and this flavours the culture in his classroom. Emphasizing clear communication, global citizenship, and treating others well opens some interesting and fruitful subjects. One was the September 11 attacks.

"It is either good news or bad news," wrote one student. "The attack will arouse the United States officials to behave themselves. Maybe the United States will be kind and equal to every country. On the other hand, the US will use the attack as an excuse for arms expansion. At the same time, she will use force to conquer weak countries in the name of prey of attack… more and more people will lose their lives anyhow. Common people have no alternative but to wait and bear everything that happens."

Another wrote, "I know I felt a little happy. I still remember that the US attacked our embassy in Yugoslavia on May 8, 1998... But now, I can't think of it only from one angle. I love peace and hate war. In this terror, more than eight thousand people are dead. Most of them were people who love peace."

Language learning is building trust and communication both ways. One student commented on this: "As a language learner, I consider myself a peacemaker." Another, grateful for what they learned, told Todd "you didn't just teach us English, you taught us to be human beings."