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1990s: The Golden Decade : EDUCATION : Chinese Language Immersion Classes Help Meld 2 Cultures


No longer are they dragged to Chinese lessons on Saturdays or after school, while their friends get to watch cartoons and play. Learning Cantonese is a no-fuss process at the West Portal Chinese Immersion Program in San Francisco.

In the nation's only public school Chinese immersion program, about 150 students get Cantonese, along with the usual math, history and science. About 40% of the students are "ABCs"--American-born Chinese--while the rest are Anglos, Latinos, blacks or of mixed ethnicities. They come from throughout the city to the program in West Portal School in the Sunset District.

The school district started the program six years ago, spurred by parents who wanted their children to learn Chinese without the headaches of hauling them to lessons outside of school.

Ling-chi Wang said that his wife was pregnant, and "I decided not to put my third child through what my two older children had to go through--10 years of after-school Chinese."

Now the third child, 6-year-old Wei-ying, is steeped in Cantonese and English, and "it's not a fuss that she has to (learn) both," said Wang, a professor at UC Berkeley.

Parents were also backed by reports of the success of French immersion programs in Canada and the fact that San Francisco had set up a Spanish immersion program the year before, said Winnie Tang, a parent and a staff development and instructional administrator for the school district.

The program has grown along with its children, adding a grade every year so that it now runs from kindergarten to fifth grade. Next year, sixth grade will be offered at a middle-school campus, along with intensive Spanish and Japanese courses.

The idea is not to translate but to teach Cantonese, along with content. In the immersion's kindergarten, for instance, the teacher explains in Cantonese what sinks and what floats, demonstrating with a tub of water and then asking the class questions in Cantonese. The children pick up a scientific concept, as well as words such as "sink," "water," "sponge" and "rock."

Instruction in kindergarten is 80% in Chinese and 20% English, which tapers to 50-50 by fifth grade, Tang said. She said her fifth-grade daughter in the program speaks Cantonese "somewhat fluently."

The immersion pupils join the 400 regular-classroom students at West Portal for recess, field trips and special projects, principal Jeanne Villafuerte said. Last fall, the program offered 33 kindergarten seats instead of the usual 30, but even so, seven parents had to be turned away.

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