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Taking Chinese in High School Means Great Wall to Conquer

Challenges are many for Orange County teacher and students. Language is complex, and he gets creative to keep them interested.

November 19, 2002|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

The students' surf shorts and freckled faces, a Mexican flag draped on one wall and Spanish-language workbooks spilling off the shelves -- to all appearances, it's a typical high school foreign-language classroom in suburban south Orange County.

Their conversation, however, is anything but predictable: Ni hao? Ni, chi fan le, mei yu? Wo bu dong.

These sophomores at Rancho Santa Margarita's Tesoro High -- roughly 20 boys and a couple of testosterone-tolerant girls -- in advanced Chinese III actually began studying the language five years ago, in fifth grade, with the same teacher, Steve Cook.

Chinese is more often taught in areas with large Asian populations, such as San Francisco and the San Gabriel Valley, and often by native speakers to children who have at least some familiarity with the language.

Cook, by contrast, learned Chinese as a Mormon missionary when he was in his 20s. His challenge is to teach a language that neither he nor his students grew up speaking, and one they cannot yet use much outside class.

To that end, Cook has engaged his students over the years with activities that emphasize culture over rote memorization -- Chinese chess tournaments in the classroom, scavenger hunts in Chinatown, a monthlong field trip to China.

With college not far off for his oldest students, Cook knows time is running out to ensure that Chinese captivates them to the point they won't abandon it.

"High school is not enough time to become fluent in any language, much less one they can't practice outside class," Cook said. "My job is to get them fascinated enough so they pursue it in college and afterward on their own."

Brian Clyne agreed with most of his classmates that no matter how great his aspiration to learn an unusual foreign language, if it weren't for Cook's creativity he would have dropped it years ago.

"We see this as really fun, but definitely a lifetime commitment," said Brian, toting an oversized costume head of a laughing monk to the teacher's minivan.

"Even if we wanted to now, I don't think any of us can imagine abandoning Chinese after we've already invested all this time."

Brian and others in the class have continued taking Chinese even after exhausting the district's language requirement and despite having to pass up surfing class, which meets at the same time.

Why? To give themselves a leg up in college admissions and the job market, they said.

"My parents were really surprised when I was the one to push staying with Chinese, rather than the other way around," Brian said. "But you need something to set you apart from your peers in this world."

Cook's students are among some 1,900 in 35 California high schools enrolled in advanced Chinese-language classes, according to the state Department of Education. In contrast, there are about 93,000 students at 850 high schools taking the same level of Spanish instruction.

Instructors throughout the U.S. education system are hard-pressed to produce students who can function in multiple languages of even the traditional types. In a nation where foreign-language classes are viewed in the same light as band or auto shop -- options rather than necessities -- experts in the field say an overhaul in the way they are taught is needed.

Language classes should begin earlier and be cast as teaching lifelong skills rather than academic subjects, said J. David Edwards, director of the Joint National Committee on Languages, a coalition of 60 language teaching groups.

"We'll be seeing this deficiency in our students as long as we treat foreign languages as an elective instead of a required course started in elementary school," he said.

In Capistrano Unified, which oversees Tesoro High, a federal grant that had subsidized the district's Chinese-language program will end after this year. District officials said they are committed to continuing the program, which in the last five years has expanded to include kindergarten through fourth grade.

Often, school districts don't have the resources to independently maintain language programs launched with external seed funding, so the programs must end when the money dries up.

"We have a lot of board members that feel strongly that in order to be citizens in a global society we really need to be bilingual," said Susan McGill, Capistrano's executive director of elementary operation services. "Although we would love to be able to expand language programs to all of the elementary schools, we know that we're lucky just to be able to continue what we have."

For a program whose earliest students are now sophomores, the challenges are still numerous for Cook.

He is limited by circumstance: Because he also teaches middle-school students and Tesoro's freshmen, he has to shuttle around South County with whatever classroom materials he can fit in two canvas bags.

Also straining Cook is the challenge for a nonnative speaker to teach a language with complex grammar and pronunciation rules he doesn't fully understand.

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