When Victoria Dougherty was preparing to adopt her daughter, Kelly, from Taiwan almost three years ago, she began to learn Mandarin Chinese.
“I didn’t want to have a 6-year-old who was unable to communicate with me,” said Dougherty, who with her husband Ted, daughter Kelly, almost 9, and son Teddy, 6, live in Phoenixville and are members of St. Monica Parish in Berwyn. “She’s a strong little girl, but I thought she would be more scared (about coming to the United States) if she couldn’t communicate. We bonded quickly.”
Kelly Dougherty now has almost 100 classmates learning Mandarin Chinese at St. Monica School (SMS) in kindergarten through fourth grade.
Dougherty teaches the language in five classes every Thursday. Students in kindergarten through second grade are learning different tones, some basic vocabulary and beginning Mandarin characters. The third and fourth graders are learning the same along with in-depth grammar and vocabulary. Because of the program, all students at St. Monica are learning about Chinese culture.
“Some of the kids say it’s their favorite class, besides gym,” said Dougherty who graduated from the University of Maryland in 1994 with a degree in Russian linguistics and literature.
She had planned to get a degree in piano performance and study in Moscow, but a repetitive stress injury from playing the piano changed her plans. She concentrated on Russian and began teaching music. Today she teaches piano privately and offers music classes for home school groups.
This past spring, Dougherty, a 1985 graduate of St. Monica, visited the school and when she met with Lisa Moran from the admissions-development department, she learned that no language was being offered at the school because of budget constraints. “I told her I could speak a couple of languages and would be more than happy to help out,” she said. Lisa Hoban, the new principal, later invited Dougherty to teach Chinese.
“She is so engaging with the students,” Hoban said. “She can’t prepare the work quickly enough. From kindergarten to fourth grade the students just gobble it up.”
“Globally it will benefit a student to be in position to speak Chinese. The high schools will have to start offering it.”
— Lisa Hoban, principal of St. Monica School
Hoban has attended some of the Chinese classes and says there is great chemistry between Dougherty and her students. Interest is so high that the principal has ordered additional textbooks and workbooks.
“I feel it is important to learn another language,” Dougherty said. “If you learn one in elementary grades it makes learning any other language easier later.”
Dougherty explained that Chinese is a pictorial language. “When I show the students how to write Chinese in Roman letters they’re learning more about phonics,” she said. “There are four tones (to clarify the meaning of words). One tone can mean one thing, a second tone can have a different meaning. The students really get the tones correct.”
For homework, she sends the students home with phrases such as, “Thank you for dinner, Mommy” in Chinese. “We’re hoping the parents gain a little understanding,” Dougherty added.
She noted there are many benefits to learning Chinese, of which Mandarin is the main language of government, the media and education in China and Taiwan.
“It’s one of those languages that, if you speak it, it looks good on your record for so many different things — math, memory and culturally,” Dougherty said. She also feels that, as a Christian, it is an important step “to have the opportunity to share the Gospel.”
Hoban adds that learning Chinese is almost an imperative in the global marketplace. “China is going to be a partner or a major competitor,” Hoban said. “Globally it will benefit a student to be in position to speak Chinese. The high schools will have to start offering it.”
In addition to Dougherty, Evelyn Tournour, a parent of two St. Monica students who is originally from Costa Rica, is teaching Spanish this semester. “Our plan is to continue with these grades ‑ K through 4 ‑ and introduce new students to Spanish and Chinese,” Hoban said. “At some point, the students could move to (concentrate) on one of the languages, or, maybe, learn both.”
Dougherty is planning a Chinese New Year festival at the school Jan. 27, the Friday before Catholic Schools week. There will be food, songs, poems and a calligraphy demonstration.
Learning new languages has opened up much of the world to Victoria Dougherty. She is passing on those treasures to the students at St. Monica.