Bilingual US schoolchildren spread the word

Financial Times

May 18 2004

The footsoldiers of globalisation are getting younger as American children take up Chinese, reports Amy Yee.

It’s a typical afternoon for thexiao pengyou – or little friends – at Shuang Wen, a dual language English-Mandarin public school near New York’s Chinatown.

Kindergarten children practise writing Chinese characters. A six-year-old whose parents are Mexican and English practises a five-minute speech entirely in Mandarin. Upstairs, a class of 10-year-olds read poems by Du Fu, the Tang dynasty poet. “Making the words sound good isn’t so hard,” says 11-year-old Jelani Carter, his face framed by braids. “Writing is the hardest.”

Traditionally, most US students start learning a second language at 14.

But the US is realising the importance of foreign language education – and of starting that language training earlier. From 1987 to 1997 foreign language instruction in elementary schools increased nearly 10 per cent, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics (Cal) in Washington.

Shuang Wen, meaning “two cultures”, opened in 1998 and is one of the only Mandarin bilingual public schools in the country. During the school day the 311 students in kindergarten through to those aged 11 follow the city’s standard curriculum in English. After school, a second set of teachers conducts classes in Mandarin.

In US secondary schools, Spanish accounts for almost 70 per cent of all language enrolments in grades 7-12 (ages 13-18), according to a 2000 report by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language. French, German and Latin follow, in order of popularity.

But Nancy Rhodes, foreign language director at Cal, says there is increasing interest in languages that are emerging as globally important.

The private sector has also realised the importance of a global perspective on education. Rupert Murdoch, chief executive of News Corporation, which owns Fox News and The Times newspaper in London, has committed Dollars 500,000 (Euros 416,000) to help Shuang Wen expand into a middle school and, ultimately, high school.

Shuang Wen’s Chinese after-school and summer programmes are free but its annual budget of about Dollars 250,000 is supported by grants from the Department of Education, New York State and the Soros Foundation.

About 80 per cent of Shuang Wen’s students are of Chinese descent, most of them born in the US. Of the rest, about 10 per cent are African-American and 5 per cent each, white and Hispanic. Ling Ling Chow, Shuang Wen’s principal, says the school aims to achieve a 50-50 balance of Chinese and non-Chinese students.

Mandarin is a foreign language for many of the Chinese-American children as well, most of whom come from families that speak other dialects, such as Cantonese and Fujianese.

Shuang Wen’s students hail from all over New York City. The school exceeds city test standards; last year students received among the highest verbal scores in the city and top mathematics scores in 2002, and attendance at the school is 98 per cent.

But Lydell Carter, the father of Jelani, who is African-American, says: “We’re living in a global society. It’s a distinct advantage if a child can speak more than one language.”

Cal studies show that the brain’s receptiveness to foreign languages declines after the age of six. Mr Carter notes that when his daughter Eboni, six, speaks Mandarin, native Chinese speakers marvel at her authentic accent.

Larry Lee, chair of Shuang Wen’s board and one of its founders, says that China’s large population and its promise as an economic superpower make Mandarin, the country’s official language, critically important.

Mr Lee says that when the school’s founding members first proposed the plan, they “had a hell of a time” getting approval from the local community board, largely because of suspicions that Shuang Wen would create a separatist school to the detriment of English.

But Shuang Wen’s academic record and international perspective now have parents lining up to enrol their children. Kenji Hakuta, an expert on bilingual education at the University of California at Merced, says that bilingualism in the US is a politically charged issue. He notes that this protective attitude arises partly from the fact that there is no “constitutional place holder that says English is the official language of the US”.

Shuang Wen parents, however, embrace the cross-cultural exchange.

Paula Grande enrolled her daughter, who was adopted from China, in Shuang Wen, saying that Mandarin “will open up worlds to her and other children”.

Ms Grande also says the school has contributed to her daughter’s appreciation of her Chinese heritage.

She recalls that one Chinatown shopkeeper was so delighted with Youjing’s conversational Mandarin that he gave her a discount on a backpack. The small rewards of Mandarin, parents hope, will turn into larger ones down the road.

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