Hwai Lin Teaches Kids to Speak Mandarin—and to Sit with Dissonance

Castilleja's Mandarin Teacher Hwai Lin introduces new vocabulary to students

Lunchtime on the Circle is over. Students are back in their classrooms, reading, discussing assignments, and taking tests. Suddenly, squeals of delight erupt from an upstairs room. 

There’s nothing to worry about, though. It’s just the Mandarin teacher, Hwai Lin, showing pictures of chinchillas and pandas to her students. 

“Awwww!” exclaim fifteen teenagers in unison as they look at the photos of fluffy animals projected onto the screen.

Lóng māo,” enunciates Ms. Lin, pointing to the chinchilla and motioning them to repeat.

Lóng māo!” the students say.

Ms. Lin points to the panda. “Xióngmāo,” she says. 

Xióngmāo!” the students repeat with glee. The teacher corrects their pronunciation and they try again. (Click here to hear a recording.)

Then, in small groups, students go on to explain to one another whether they like pandas or chinchillas better. They also discuss the benefits and the drawbacks of San Francisco versus Washington, D.C. and arts versus athletics, all of it in Mandarin. Ms. Lin walks between the desks, listening and answering questions. 

Every day in Ms. Lin’s classroom, students practice not only a new language, but also courage, one of Castilleja’s 5Cs. “When you’re sitting in a World Language classroom, you’re committed to learning this language. The pronunciation is unfamiliar, the grammar, the structure is all unfamiliar,” says Ms. Lin. Now in her ninth year of teaching at Castilleja, she knows what it’s like: she was born in Taiwan and learned English as a second language. She is also fluent in Japanese and Arabic, having studied in Kuwait for a year after college. 

“I really do have a passion for learning languages,” Ms. Lin admits. “I still have an Arabic language partner. I want to show my students language learning is never about perfection. It’s an ongoing process.”

She credits her mother for inspiring her to step out of her comfort zone and be courageous. “My mom always encouraged me to go and see the world. She also got encouraged by my grandparents to travel, to have adventures when she was young. And back then in Taiwan, it’s not something that parents would usually do for a girl.”

Ms. Lin finds creative ways to bring the world to her students, including asking her Upper School Advanced Topics Language students to interview a Taiwanese college student about Taiwan's education system. As the teens chat across a 15-hour divide over Zoom, the conversation often veers off into their hobbies and pop culture. They even bond over the occasional lack of sleep. “They really want to know what life is like outside of their bubble,” she says. 

She also incorporates one of Castilleja’s Antiracist Teaching and Learning Competencies, Sitting with Dissonance—the practice of valuing the discomfort and ambiguity that can result from seeming inconsistent thoughts, values, and beliefs. One of the ways Ms. Lin does this is by showing clips from the 2019 movie The Farewell, about a Chinese family that conceals their grandmother’s cancer diagnosis from her. Ms. Lin asks the class to share their thoughts about the moral dilemmas the characters face. 

Telling white lies to protect someone’s feelings is often frowned upon in Western society, “but lying with good intentions can be quite common in Chinese culture,” she explains. “Some parts [of the movie] might make you feel very uncomfortable if you don’t have that background.” 

As the students contemplate the characters’ choices, Ms. Lin reminds them to hold space for different vantage points, taking time to appreciate and possibly even grow from any tension they experience as they genuinely feel their own feelings and also see the value in the characters’ actions. 

“Why did the person say that in that scene? There are different perspectives and different approaches to dealing with one issue,” Ms. Lin says. “The intention is all the same: we all want the best for grandma. They probably still won’t accept that approach, but they will understand the core issue. Do not build a wall first, try to build a bridge first.” 

In fact, students often view Ms. Lin as that bridge. She can relate to multicultural students with families from all over the world, encourage them to ask questions, and help explain concepts that often have no direct translation.

A popular topic in her class is dinnertime conversation. Being grilled with personal questions about one’s salary and dating life by a grandma or a distant uncle is considered impolite in the Western culture. But in many traditions, Ms. Lin notes, when the family elders ask these questions, “it’s just showing they care. They worry about you if they think you’re getting thinner. They say ‘Oh, you’re looking chubby now, so I’m glad.’” 

This gets students to open up about their own interesting mealtime conversations with relatives. 

“In the end, we want the dining table to be a fun time together,” says Ms. Lin. “Students learn to appreciate diversity. And within that diversity, there is still similarity.’