Chinese classes connect children with their roots
It’s easier for them than their parents to learn
Margot Spangler-Tannen doesn’t read or write, yet the 4-year-old has already learned three words in Chinese—she can say “hello,” as well as “winter” and “snow.” The latter two words combined—Winter Snow—is the English translation of her Chinese name, Dong Xue.
Margot, who was adopted in China when she was 9 months old, has been attending a weekly Chinese-language class to gain a basic understanding of her heritage.
“It is a really good experience for her to stay connected with her roots,” her mother, Jennifer Spangler, said. “She talks with pride about attending her Chinese class.”
The 45-minute class held every Saturday in Taylor Hall is part of Chico State University’s mission to serve the community and to promote cultural and educational exchanges between China and the United States. While the university has a Chinese-language academic program, these classes are geared toward children from 5 to 12 years old and also focus on the culture of China.
For children such as Margot, whose parents don’t speak Chinese, the program is creating a familiarity with the language. Her mother says she hopes her daughter gains a strong foundation for the language and culture of her ethnic background so she can visit China when she is older.
These classes, with about 31 children enrolled in the first two semesters, are free to the general public. The first class was offered in the fall of 2008, and the next session will begin in the fall 2009 semester.
Frank Li, professor of linguistics and English, has been overseeing the program. While the class is available to children of Chinese descent, he hopes to obtain funding to offer the class to anyone who is interested, beginning in the fall. But for now, many of the students are from families of cross-ethnic marriages, and others have been adopted.
Besides looking for funding to open the program to the entire community, Li is in the process of setting up a Chinese Language and Cultural Resource Center at the university. He hopes to offer a similar class at a local elementary school in the future as well.
The program is partially sponsored by a grant from the Office of the Chinese Language Council International under the Chinese Ministry of Education. The College of Humanities and Fine Arts received $50,000 for the next three years to support the language classes, as well as the newly established Chinese-language program in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures.
An agreement between Huazhong Normal University and Chico State allows for a different visiting Chinese language and culture instructor each year. This year the classes are being taught by visiting professor Lily Liu.
“These classes are an excellent contribution to our community,” said Sandra Flake, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs in a press release. “They will also have the impact of advancing interest in Chinese language learning at higher levels.”
Li said he believes the demand for such a program is increasing because of the role China has in the world arena. While studying Chinese language was once a luxury, he added, it now may be becoming a necessity and certainly will give these children a “competitive edge in the rapidly globalizing world in which China is one of the emerging economic powers.”
Also, he said, children with an ethnic background may benefit from learning about their history and culture to give them a better understanding because it is natural to feel different from others growing up in the United States.
For many of the children, the language class may be their only exposure to Chinese. Jennifer Spangler and her husband, Jason Tannen, are both from Ohio, and had never been exposed to Chinese prior to adopting their daughter. While they have attempted to learn the language along with Margot, Jennifer said “it’s extremely challenging and unfamiliar.”
For example, she said some words may look or sound similar, but the tone or “the way you pronounce it gives meaning to the words.”
Cathleen Greenlee attends class with her 7-year-old daughter Madeline to learn as well, so she can help her two daughters practice vocabulary at the dinner table and on long car rides.
She hopes 4-year-old Annalise will be able to attend the class in the fall. Greenlee and her husband, Jim, adopted both girls in China.
“It’s fantastic,” Greenlee said of the class. “I could not give my kids the culture and language because I don’t have it.”
The Greenlee family also participates with the local chapter of Families with Children from China, where the girls are able to experience and learn about Chinese culture.
Joel Zimbelman, dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, said these classes are giving children a solid foundation in bilingual language. After all, language acquisition starts in infancy, he said, and studies show “any time you can get kids involved in language acquisition, you are ahead of the game.”