Chinese language attracts young US fans

Updated: 2012-02-12 08:54


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HOUSTON - Six-year-old Derrick Hill is eager to learn new words in Chinese during his dual language course at a primary school in Texas state. The Hispanic-origin boy now starts teaching his mom and dad Chinese at home.

Hill is not the only pupil fascinated by the Chinese language at Stafford Primary School, which is the only school in Texas offering English-Chinese dual language classes to kindergarten and first-grade pupils.

As the world becomes more integrated and China emerges as an economic powerhouse, Stafford Primary, the small town's elementary school is ambitious to envisage its pupils a brighter future by teaching them one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.

"Bilingual education starts here," said Kim Vu, 43, principal of Stafford Primary School, who spearheaded the dual language classes in 2010 and implemented it last year.

The courses are "two-way classes so that English speakers can learn from native Chinese and Vietnamese speakers, and vice versa, " she said.

Pupils at Stafford Primary School come from Stafford and a half-dozen local school districts in suburbs and towns near Houston. Some are with Asian roots but most have no Asian branches on their family trees.

The dual Asian-English classes is the main reason children chose this school, Vu said.

During the courses, children recite the alphabet, sing counting songs, identify animals, food and colors and even ask their teacher for a hug in Chinese with enthusiasm.

Meihwa Yang is in her second year of teaching Chinese at the kindergarten-level classes at Stafford Primary School.

"We start from the basics, teaching the Chinese language, then math in Chinese. We spend half the day on Chinese, other days, social studies and science," said Yang, "They can say they want to go to the restroom, say to the teacher 'hug me' and 'I love you.'"

Students also keep journals of their lessons in Chinese or Vietnamese, which is the 7-year-old Sabrina Martinez's favorite part of the program.

"I like writing and learning new words," said Martinez, one of the program's pupils of Hispanic origin. "I knew English and a little bit of Spanish, but I wanted to learn different languages. I learn new words and write them."

The principal said not only does researches back the theory that early childhood is the best time to learn another language, but as one of the refugees from Vietnam in 1977 -- when she was seven years old -- her own story proved the theory.

Vu began learning English in an Arkansas refugee camp before taking English classes after her family settled down in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Because of its proximity with Mexico, Texas schools almost all have bilingual Spanish-English classes or English as a second language class for Spanish-speaking students.

So far, Stafford is the only school offering its four classes, 50 percent English and 50 percent Chinese and Vietnamese, at the primary level. The program has thrived so much and Vu now plans to increase the classes to other grade levels

Stafford may not keep its advantage long, Vu said, as there are visits from surrounding school districts and plans are being made to incorporate Chinese language classes in primary schools throughout the state.

"It's also been very positive, some of the notes parents have written, thankful that this is here," Vu said, "They know the importance of acquiring bilingual status in a global world."

Vu sees language classes especially Chinese integrated with math and other subjects as a preparation for her pupils to embrace the global future.

"More people speak Chinese than any other language in the whole world," Vu said, "School leaders are beginning to realize that to be able to equip our children for the 21st century."

Yang said it's not unusual for children to become so enthralled with the Chinese language that they become fascinated with Chinese culture.

"I have only one child from China. The rest are African American, Hispanic, all very diversified. Kids say 'I love Chinese. I want to be Chinese.'"

Jonathan Ochoa, 7, enjoys writing in Chinese characters in his journal and reading Chinese children's books or watching Chinese lessons on film in the classroom.

When asked who would be a teacher of Chinese language in the future,   Ochoa, Hill and Martinez all raised their hands eagerly saying "I am! I am!"

"Our program is five years, so the kids are constantly learning," said Yang. "They learn when it's set to music, when they write in their journal, at their work stations when they help each other. They get it."