The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 10, 2006


Chinese teacher Chiao Bin Huang reviews question structure with her sixth-grade class. (Photo by Anne Marie Brako)

Learning Chinese takes students beyond syntax

If you visit a Chinese language class at the Carlisle Public School, you immediately recognize that you are in a foreign environment. The students begin and end each class by standing and bowing respectfully to their teacher. Chiao Bin Huang, the primary Chinese language teacher at the school, believes that teaching students about the culture of China is as important as deciphering Chinese characters.

"Teaching Chinese is not just teaching the language," says Huang. "They [the students] also need to learn about culture — about art and many other things." The Carlisle classroom is decorated with examples of Chinese culture, such as colorful kites and celebratory lanterns.

"The students are able to tell what they like and don't like," explains Huang about the language curriculum. "They have learned about some of the food. They can talk about their family and friends. At the end of the year, they will be able to greet people. They will be able to say 'thank you' and 'you're welcome.' They will be able to ask basic questions."

First year of Chinese language

This is the first year that the school has offered the Chinese language to middle school students. Nineteen students are currently enrolled in the seventh-grade course that meets four times a week. The 14 students in the sixth-grade course meet three times a week. Both courses cover the same material, except that Huang uses the additional day with the seventh-grade students to address more cultural information. All fifth-grade students are introduced to eight weeks of French, eight weeks of Spanish and one day of Chinese. At the end of this school year, these students will choose one of these languages to pursue at the middle-school level.

Concord-Carlisle High School offers four years of study in Chinese. According to Hai-Ming Wu, the Chinese teacher at CCHS, an unusually high percentage of the Chinese students came from Carlisle last year: 24 of the 59 students. This year there are 65 students of Chinese at the secondary level, but figures on Carlisle enrollment were not immediately available.

Enhancing the community Huang lives with her husband and three children on River Road. A talented dancer and artist, she originally grew up in Taiwan and received her undergraduate degree in dance from the Chinese Cultural University. She performed internationally as a member of the Chinese Youth Goodwill Mission troupe. After coming to the U.S., Huang completed her studies at Emerson College where she received a Master's degree in theatre education. She performed as part of Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road project. Busy with raising her own children, she began limiting her outside work to teaching Chinese language privately and offering Chinese dance and craft classes. For the past two years, she actively participated in Carlisle's Chinese New Year celebration.

At the end of last summer, Huang heard that the Carlisle Public School was looking for a Chinese teacher. She applied and received the part-time teaching position in conjunction with another Chinese teacher, Chiu Ling Campo. An Acton resident, Campo specializes in grammar. She comes to the Carlisle School only one day a week and teaches the seventh- and sixth-grade classes one day a week. Campo has attended Fisher College and has studied more traditional teaching courses.

The Chinese teachers do not currently hold the specific degrees and all the accreditation usually required by the Carlisle Public School for foreign language teachers. In fact, Campo will leave the school next year to focus on pursuing further academic requirements. Chinese teachers who already have all the requirements are hard to find. Huang is committed to the Chinese language program in Carlisle, and she says she will actively pursue accreditation and testing to meet the requirements she needs. In the meantime, she feels that the school staff has given her a lot of support to help the program succeed.

"Mr. Goodwin [the principal] has been teaching me a lot of skills and how to manage the classroom," Huang says. "It was very intensive at the beginning of the year. The standards are very high here. No matter what your qualifications are, you have to meet very high expectations."

Today Huang has settled comfortably into the American classroom. A typical lesson includes group conversation, worksheets prepared by Huang and reading from the text. The class may even sing a song in Chinese. Huang reviews material informally through quizzes.

"The students get nervous when they have a test," she says. "They study a lot and then they forget. I don't like that. So I do a lot of informal tests using scrap paper with just five questions. They don't get nervous." And, even better, they remember previous lessons.

Challenges in learning Chinese

Huang has encountered both literal and cultural difficulties in teaching the Chinese language to American students. The language difficulties center on the sentence structure and pronunciation. Chinese and English sentences have completely opposite word order. For example, the question, "Whose book is this?" would literally translate to "This book whose?" "I told them at the very beginning, instead of calling me Teacher Huang, they should call me Huang Teacher!" recalls Huang.

Huang writes out sentences in Chinese for her students using the Roman alphabet, which has a unique character for each letter, and in Chinese characters which represent entire words. Since so many Chinese characters exist, Huang realizes that students can become overwhelmed. Although she always introduces both forms, Huang insists on students writing, practicing and memorizing only the main characters. However, once the students know these, Huang often will use only the Chinese script.

Another difficult concept for Americans is that there are four ways to pronounce a Chinese character. Different tones have completely different meanings. For example, Huang told of a classroom visit by Superintendent Marie Doyle, who shared with the class the word used at the market to offer "half price" for an item. In another tone, it means "kidnapped."

Huang finds classroom discipline extremely different between the Chinese and American cultures. She discovered that seating children at tables instead of traditional rows, while conducive to teamwork, can disrupt individual learning. She found that many students struggled with the very foreign concepts because they could not focus.

The two Chinese characters that represent the English word "teacher" combine the graphic symbols of "old" and "master".

By introducing Chinese manners with bows at the beginning and end of class, Huang hopes to have some impact on teaching American children about cultural differences in China. She notes that the word for "teacher" in Chinese really joins two characters: "old" and "master." As the years go by, someday these students will probably forget exactly how to ask about the location of their backpacks, but they will undoubtedly remember how to greet a Chinese person with respect.

2006 The Carlisle Mosquito