From Chinatown to China: Learning world languages in L.A. schools

By Jacquie Levy

imageSeated in a folding chair in the middle of Chinatown’s historic West Plaza, seven-year-old Aidan Garner’s short legs dangled his little feet above the ground as a concentrated expression washed over his face. He dipped a calligraphy brush almost as long as his whole arm into a bowl of black paint, and meticulously copied a series of connected lines from the paper beside him onto the newspaper in front of him. As an American-born, second-grade student, Garner had just done something that most American adults will never be able to do: he had written the Mandarin Chinese character for ‘moon cake’. As his mother looked proudly over his shoulder smiling, Garner declared, “I’m writing Chinese, it’s fun and easy!”

On that particular Saturday evening in Chinatown, the smell of Chinese food was especially strong and the clamor of voices was exceedingly loud. A diverse crowd of all ages and ethnicities from all over Los Angeles came to experience the 72nd annual Chinese celebration of the new autumn harvest moon, known as the Mid Town Moon Festival. While there were lots of exciting, kid-friendly activities like performances by Shaolin warriors and contortionists, Chinese cooking demonstrations, zodiac face painting, craft tables and ping-pong contests, many children were drawn to a more subdued activity: the Mandarin calligraphy workshop hosted by the UCLA Confucius Institute.

A young volunteer at the station who referred to himself as “the white guy who speaks Chinese,” enticed curious children and adults with the simple question, “Wanna give it a try?” Intrigued by the challenge, participants sat down at the U-shaped setup of folding tables that was scattered with newspapers, paint, and pictures of Chinese words commonly associated with the Moon Festival. George Yu, the Executive Director of Chinatown’s Business Improvement District, watched his 13-year-old daughter Elizabeth Yu and her 12-year-old friend Felicia Hano receive some personal Mandarin instruction from Qin Huang, a petite and expressive Confucius Institute volunteer, who also teaches Mandarin at a local middle school.

The scene mentally transported Yu to his younger days in Taiwan. “It’s important for them to be exposed to this,” he said. “I still remember this vividly, trying to do calligraphy in Taiwan.”

Yu moved to the United States when he was very little with what he described as “strict marching orders to assimilate as quickly as possible.” With little to no practice speaking Chinese since then, he said the extent of what he can do with his language now is order food from a Chinese restaurant.

Yu expressed concern that schools overseas have become much more competitive than they are here in America. This perception is echoed by the UCLA Confucius Institute whose website states that only 31 percent of American elementary schools report teaching a foreign language, while there are 200 million students in China taking English courses. For this reason, Yu said that any exposure kids can get to other languages, whether at school or at a festival in Chinatown, is important in keeping them competitive in an increasingly global workforce.

Exposure to Chinese language and culture is exactly what the Director of UCLA’s Confucius Institute, Susan Jain, looks to achieve from the institute’s participation in events like the Mid Town Moon Festival.

“It’s my way of doing propaganda. We need people to understand this country. Knowledge is power,” said Jain who has kids of her own, “I want to tell my kids about China and tell them we can’t just shut the door and say oh they’re a bad country.”

To spread this message, the Confucius Institute has focused on establishing Mandarin language programs in K-12 schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District. Their efforts have been aided by the federal government’s “strategic defense languages” initiative, created after the September 11th terrorist attacks to fund language programs in Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, and Korean. Jain said that these language skills will become invaluable to students as more and more industry and government jobs begin to require knowledge of Chinese and other Asian languages. The Confucius Institute is trying to get these programs started as early as possible in a child’s academic life.

“If they start when they’re five years old, they can pick up languages just like that, and their Chinese accents are beautiful,” said Jain who also explained the benefit of using language to teach science, math, art and music. “The calligraphy is fun for students because it incorporates art with language. It’s not boring, it’s a game, and they don’t realize they’re learning.”

Back in the classroom at Foshay Learning Center on South Harvard Boulevard and 37th Street, Qin Huang’s students call her Ms. Qin Qin (pronounced Chin Chin). Huang helps her students remember her name by joking that right now she has a double chin, but as she continues to get older and wiser, she might have a triple chin.

When Huang moved to America from Suzhou, China last year to attend California’s State University at Los Angeles, she got involved with a new program launched by the UCLA Confucius Institute called the “Mandarin Teaching Scholars Program”. The venture was created to offer fellowship support for people enrolled in teacher credential programs, in an effort to get more Mandarin teachers accredited and into LAUSD classrooms. In return for the scholarship support, Mandarin Teaching Fellows like Huang volunteer to teach up to 20 hours a week in a local school. After volunteering in Foshay’s elementary school last year, the learning center hired her on full time this year to pilot a Mandarin program in their Middle School.

Jain was impressed with what Huang had accomplished with the students at Foshay in only one year, “It’s amazing what she’s done with the kids.”

Broadway Elementary School on Lincoln Boulevard and Broadway Street, is another LAUSD school that adopted the Institute’s Mandarin Immersion program. After their first year with the program, Broadway reported that their Academic Performance Index (a measurement of academic performance and progress of individual schools in California) shot up over 107 points to 855 on a scale of 1000 points. Jain said that there is reason to believe this unusual achievement could be at least partially a result of the Mandarin instruction that challenges students to think in a completely different way.

Huang saw mixed reactions from her students at Foshay when she first started the program, “Some kids absolutely fall in love with it right away, some think it’s really weird.” But the kids eventually all warm up to the idea of learning Chinese as they start moving around, singing songs and playing games. Huang said learning a language is all about communication, so she prefers teaching the language interactively versus simply reading and writing or saying and repeating words.

One phrase you won’t hear in her classroom is ‘foreign language’. Huang said that she forbids her students from referring to languages like Mandarin, Arabic, and Farsi as ‘foreign’ because it’s a hurtful term.

“It makes people not want to touch it, it sounds scary,” said Huang. So instead, her students use the phrase “world language” in reference to Mandarin and other Asian languages. This is all part of her yearlong goal in the classroom to change the kids’ mindsets about these world languages and cultures, while expanding their horizons to different global opportunities.

You will often hear her telling her students, “It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s different.” And by the end of the school year, the kids start using this phrase too. Huang said, “I want my students to know that the Chinese culture, just like other Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, aren’t good or bad, they’re just different from their own, and that’s no reason to bomb them just because we don’t understand them.”