Thursday, May 11, 2006

Chinese at Alcott School

Today, WBEZ featured Alcott School's Chinese program (see their May 11 schedule; also a widely cited New York Times article). Principal David Domovic told me the good news: CPS has funded one terrific (certified) Chinese teacher, Ms. Hong Wei Yu, but they really need a second one. He says budget constraints and federal law make it very difficult to meet the demand for a good idea like this one. No Child Left Behind forces CPS to use only state-certified teachers, while there are many great Chinese teaching candidates who aren't.

Now, I love Chinese. When I worked in China, I had to use it every day. I use it only infrequently here. I recognize the benefits of language learning and would love to get my son into LaSalle Language Academy this fall. Yet, while Chinese will be increasingly important in American business and culture, Spanish already is important and is likely to remain far more useful than Chinese, particularly for Chicago. If given a choice, I'd rather my son learn Spanish first, Chinese later. Yet, according to the NYT article, Lincoln Park parents may disagree with me: "At Alcott, 160 students from kindergarten to fifth grade are studying Spanish, compared with 242 taking Chinese, although not without occasional frustration." Was Chinese chosen over Spanish by the parents, or the children?


Blogger georgeborrow said...

(a) The public schools do have an alternative certification route for Chinese speakers, which lets them start almost immediately:

(b) It is somewhat puzzling to say that, because Spanish speakers are unwilling to learn English, Anglo-phones should learn Spanish. If your argument has weight, that people should learn the languages that are "relevant" to a geographical area, then how much more relevant could it be to learn English in Chicago? But, on a deeper level, without exploring the issue of whether Spanish and English are just corrupted Latinate cousins and not as psychologically beneficial in terms of teaching children to appreciate fundamentally different cognitive structures at an age when their brains remain malleable, if you want to promote understanding between Hispanic and American kids, isn't it better for them to share the academic experience of studying a genuinely foreign language?

9:31 AM  
Blogger Peter Zelchenko said...

George, thank you very much for that press release! It looks as if that's just what Alcott is looking for. I've forwarded it to David Domovic and will follow up with him on it.

I don't think I said Anglophones must learn Spanish because Spanish speakers can't, nor do I think it's a valid premise. First of all, many more Spanish speakers are mastering English in America than the other way around. You understand that children are more easily able to learn language than adults. Given that we now have adults in this generation who have difficulty communicating, it's a positive thing for the next generation to learn the most important language or languages in the geogaphy. Chinese is not as crucial in terms of applicability as the other two.

Furthermore, Spanish and English are distant enough cousins (actually, English is not a Romance language but Germanic, yet they're both descendants of Proto-Indoeuropean) that I'm sure children's brains benefit synaptically from the learning experience.

Chinese is also much tougher to master, and kids have enough on their plates as we know. I understand there's a problem with hyperlexia among the Chinese as it is, because of the amount of memorization they must do for the writing system. When someone asks my advice on what language they should study, I recommend an easy one that they can use as often as possible. I've seen too much time wasted by students who abandon a language before they've been brought to a level of fluency that they can feel they "own" the language. There's a far greater chance of that happening with Chinese, for various reasons that should be obvious.

There's a European joke that goes:

What do you call someone who speaks three languages? --Trilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks two languages? --Bilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks one language? --American.

Americans don't speak foreign languages because we've felt we don't need to study them, nor do we need to encourage our children to learn them beyond the period required in the statute. In my experience, folks who know two languages are much more likely to know more than two. That's common in Europe. But you have to use it or else you lose it. You can't lose Spanish in Chicago.

11:08 PM  

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