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American-Born Chinese Learn a Second Language: Chinese

December 12, 1985|HEATHER WILLIAMS | Heather Williams is an editorial assistant at The Times

Some of the students who attend Saturday classes at the San Fernando Valley Chinese Baptist Church and School in Tarzana and at the Northridge Chinese School would rather be watching morning cartoons or playing with friends than studying a second language.

"It's not always easy to make a Saturday class interesting," said Sunny Chin, teacher at the Tarzana school for two years and a student at California State University, Northridge. "A lot of responsibility falls on us as teachers."

But the greatest responsibility comes from the Chinese community, which places much importance on maintaining a bond with its 3,000-year-old culture.

"We don't even need to advertise. It's strictly word-of-mouth in the Chinese community," said Winston Lau, principal of the Northridge Chinese School.

60 Affiliates

In the San Fernando Valley, there are about 10,000 American-born and immigrant Chinese, predominantly from Taiwan and Canton. The Tarzana and Northridge-based schools are two of 60 affiliated with the Southern California Council of Chinese Schools, many of which are in Monterey Park, Alhambra and Arcadia. Although no Chinese newspaper is based in the Valley, community ties here are strengthened through church activities and business alliances.

Lau, who has been principal of the Northridge Chinese School for five years, walks around Andasol Elementary, where the classes meet. He has a carefree and gentle manner, smiling and greeting parents and family members who sit talking while their children learn. He graciously provides information to newcomers and supervises as other parents set up crackers and juice for a break.

Lau knows the inevitable, that American-born Chinese are slowly changing, blending with their present culture to form a new one.

"This is more than simply learning a language; we are more concerned with a culture," said Lau, who came from Hong Kong in 1954. "You ask the children and they'll tell you they are American-born Chinese. They are proud to be American, but they are still Chinese."

Started With Six Families

The Northridge school began in 1971 with six families who brought their 15 children to Northridge Park.

Today, the school has grown to 180 students with 22 teachers. Students are asked to pay a $70 donation for classes for a semester. Because of its proximity to CSUN, professors and college students have attended the school. Activities vary from kung fu, taught by Lau's 26-year-old son, to calligraphy and music classes. The emphasis in recent years has switched from Cantonese to Mandarin, the official language of China and Taiwan.

Although local dialects are still spoken at home, Mandarin was established as the official language in 1949. It is of northern Chinese origin, a standardized form of the Beijing (Peking) dialect.

More than 50 dialects are spoken in China, each with its own distinctive tonal qualities and with radically different pronunciations.

"Someone speaking in Taiwanese can not understand someone speaking in the Cantonese dialect. They are that different," said Laura Wu, principal of the Tarzana school.

"That's why Mandarin is so important, so necessary. Now we are very slowly being able to communicate with each other," said Chin, who also works as an anchorwoman at the Chinese-language Channel 38.

In contrast to Lau's school, the Tarzana school is small. It operates year-round, and the children are 5 to 13 years old.

"We are a small operation," said Wu. "We have about 30 students. I just signed up two more this morning, but they don't speak any Chinese."

Five levels of Mandarin are taught, and each class has five to seven students. Wu teaches the highest level. In Taiwan, it would be equivalent to the second grade.

"The learning is slow because the children are here only one day a week," said Wu. She originally came to this country in 1972 from Taiwan to study mathematics at Utah State University at Logan. "We encourage the parents to speak Chinese as much as possible to their children, but sometimes they think it's easier to speak English."

Remembering the first classes, Lau said, "We couldn't teach our own children. It's easier if someone else teaches them."

Wu was chosen as the school's principal because she wanted to take an active part in her children's Chinese education. Tuition is low--about $50 a semester--and the teachers are paid only a small token salary. "We are here to do something for the Chinese community," she said, "to pass along something for the next generation."

Wu is patient and soft-spoken, but she is also determined. She expects her students to practice at least an hour every night.

"It's hardest on the kids who don't speak at home," said Chin. "Sometimes they feel like it's a day-care center. But the better they get, the more they like it."

"Now, I speak with my mother about half English and half Chinese," said Marilyn Ho, a 13-year-old student who has been attending classes for five years.

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