DUAL LANGUAGE ED: CHINESE & ENGLISH
Creating Global Citizens Through Bilingual Education
Principal Iris Y. Chui has years of experience as a bilingual educator, speaking both English and Mandarin Chinese. What is obvious to her, as well as most everyone involved in language instruction, is that the earlier one starts learning a second language, the better, especially with language as difficult as Chinese. There are around 5,000 characters in the language. “You need 2,000 to get by,” she said.
Such is the reasoning behind Shuang Wen, a K-to-8 school on Cherry Street in Manhattan’s Lower East side. The first public bilingual school in the nation when it was started in 1998, students spend half the day being taught in English and the other half in Chinese. Research, according to Chiu, shows that multilingual speakers have more active brain cells and are more receptive of new knowledge than people who only speak one language. At base though, it is just a school like any other.
“The ABCD’s are learned in English one day, and EFGH’s are learned in Mandarin Chinese the next,” she said. “The language is just a tool to deliver the lesson,” she said. Though most teachers are bilingual, those who are monolingual in English and Chinese team up to teach lessons. They alternate, coordinate and collaborate.
What is perhaps most unique about the school is how extraordinarily successful it is, and not just in teaching Chinese. Shuang Wen has a 100 percent passing rate on standardized tests and 70 percent of students are placed in specialized high schools. Stuyvesant High School is the most common destination for graduates. The vast majority of the student body is of Asian descent.
Chiu attributes this success to a strong staff and the dual-language model. Supportive parents and dedicated staff push students to work harder. Though students only have to stay for the usual school hours, the school day might as well be an extra two and a half hours. From 8 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. is optional tutoring, 8:40 a.m. to 3 p.m. is normal class hours, and from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., the school provides extra academic support in Chinese. A remarkable 90 percent of the student body attends these tutoring sessions.
For students who are entering the school and are not yet fluent in Chinese, they are required to receive even more special attention. “It’s important that parents understand that their child will need a private tutor to catch up if they’re behind,” she said.
This is actually Chui’s first year on the job, having taken the position in June, but she is quick at work at expanding the school’s resources. She wants to incorporate greater instruction in dance and art, as “cultural immersion is important if you want to do well in the language,” she said. A major project this year will be expanding a dual-language library, as well as seeking out more professional development for the staff.
Born in Taiwan, Chui came to the United States to study journalism at the University of Iowa, where she was the only Chinese student in the school. Having never encountered an Asian person before, her roommates were more than a little taken aback at her being there. “I felt a bit like a monkey in a cage,” she said.
She went on to work as a beat reporter in New York. To report on a particular story, she was asked to take the teaching exam, just to see what was required to become a teacher in New York. Without studying, she passed. After the long hours as a reporter began to wear on her, she decided that it might be a good idea to try her hand at teaching, in spite of how inadvertently she went about getting her license.
Chiu was a classroom teacher for 14 years, and in that time has witnessed the world shift its perception of Chinese. Back when she started, “Japanese was highly regarded, not Chinese,” she said. “Yet now it’s China that is viewed as a fast-paced, developing superpower. Parents prefer Chinese because they feel it prepares their children for the global job market.”
For her own children, products of an American upbringing, being forced to study Chinese at an early age was not easy, as they saw no real need for it. Now that they are older, they appreciate the opportunities fluency in Chinese has given them. When she speaks to them in Chinese, they answer in Chinese right back, instead of in English.
Some see Shuang Wen School as too demanding for young children; certain parents have pulled their children out in protest based on the amount of homework their children were given. Whatever the legitimacy of their concerns though, if their children do in fact stay in the school, they can rest assured that they will leave the school incredibly well prepared for the academics of high school, as well as a world where Chinese is an ever-growing aspect of a global economy. #