Li Xing

A hard time learning the lingo

By Li Xing (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-01-14 08:02
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Last Sunday, I visited the University of Cincinnati's Raymond Walters College campus. It was the opening day of the new semester of the Greater Cincinnati Chinese School.

Over 18 weeks, the more than 200 students, aged between 5 to 17, will spend three hours every Sunday taking classes to learn to speak, read and write Chinese, as well as brushing up their skills in Chinese painting, calligraphy, dance and other aspects of Chinese culture.

I met an American couple, who sent their three children to the school to learn Chinese. Tracy Stammer, the mother, told me that she and her husband, Todd, have chosen home schooling for their children. However, they decided to send their children to the Chinese school to "learn something different", as China is becoming more and more important in the world these days, Stammer told me.

Most of the teachers are volunteers and most of the students are children of Chinese origin whose parents came from the Chinese mainland.

After the children were ushered into the classrooms with their new textbooks, more than a dozen parents - members of the school's council - gathered together to discuss plans for the Chinese New Year celebration scheduled for Jan 22.

Other parents were playing cards, and still others were shopping in the Chinese grocery market.

Obviously, the parents were having a good time socializing, but I was not so sure about the children.

I sat in a classroom in its main building for about 10 minutes, observing more than a dozen children taking their first lesson after a few weeks' break.

The text seems simple: "I am in a Chinese language school. My teacher is teaching us to speak Chinese, write Chinese characters, narrate nursery rhymes, and draw pictures. And I love learning Chinese."

Even so, most of the students struggled, although many were more enthusiastic when asked to join a game of piecing separate characters into a sentence. I do wonder how many of them will keep up learning Chinese. I heard some parents talk about how their children quit after only a few classes.

Dr Ma Liping, who heads a Chinese language school for overseas Chinese at Stanford University, writes online about the frustration of Chinese-US youths and their parents. According to Ma, generations of Chinese immigrants in the US - whether they are from the Chinese mainland or Taiwan - have tried to pass their mother tongue to their children, without much success. Parents, as well as teachers, acknowledge that learning and teaching Chinese to children in the US is difficult, especially when they don't have their non-English speaking grandparents around.

The key stumbling block is the methodology, Charlie Zhang, chairman of the board of the Chinese school, told me. After all, few of the teachers who compile the existing textbooks live in the US. Without in-depth knowledge about the lives, interest and needs of children in the US, it is difficult to come up with an attractive curricula for them.

But no matter how hard it is, the Chinese here have not stopped trying. Browsing on the website, I've noticed that several of them have come up with their own textbooks.

I've read a few of Ma Liping's lessons. They are fascinating because the lessons try to help children learn Chinese characters first. And the lessons, from ancient Chinese proverbs and tales, are rich in traditional Chinese culture and wisdom. It seems the search for the best way to teach the Chinese language is still ongoing.

The author is assistant editor-in-chief of China Daily. She can be reached at