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Chinese Language School teaches youngsters aiming to expand their words, worlds

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As Grace Lee Chou rang a brass school bell by hand in the hallways of Loch Raven High School on a recent Sunday afternoon, television sets in many area homes were tuned into the Ravens game and families were busy with typical weekend activities.

But six first- and second-graders were soon hard at work in a classroom, repeating letters and consonant blends in unison as their teacher, Julie Liu, pointed to them one by one on a chalkboard.

The children were competing to see who could recite the letters the loudest and who could get the most correct, a scene common in schools the world over.

And, while it may seem like a regular lesson was taking place, the two-semester curriculum being taught is anything but routine. The children are learning Mandarin — one of the world's most difficult languages — at the Chinese Language School of Baltimore.

It was just another two-hour Sunday class for the 30 students ages 5 to 18, who are grouped in five classes by age and skill level at the school, a nonprofit organization in its 43rd year.

Eugenia Henry, chairwoman of the school's board of directors and a former principal, said the school was founded in 1971 by Jacob Huang, who saw a need for American-born Chinese children to be able to converse with relatives in their native tongue.

"We parents can all teach our kids Chinese — or math or chemistry, for that matter — but they don't listen to us," said Henry, 57, who works as a statistical consultant and migrated to the U.S. from Taiwan in 1979. A Sparks resident, she has served in various capacities at the school since 1995.

"My three kids all graduated from the Chinese School and I really appreciated all that the teachers taught them," she said of her grown children. "Some parents who didn't send their children to Chinese school tell me they regret that choice now that their kids are older."

Chou concurred, adding, "If you don't pick up the language early, then it's usually too late."

In addition to their mission of bringing Chinese families closer together through their shared culture and language, administrators want to broaden the outreach of the school by attracting more Americans, Henry said.

While the school has always welcomed non-Chinese students, advertising that educational philosophy has become more of a necessity these days, she said.

The school's enrollment is slowly shrinking as a new trend related to the 2008 downturn in the U.S. economy has been developing, Henry said.

Increasingly, more immigrants who come to America for a college education are, after graduation, returning home to Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong to work and start families, she said.

Grace Lee Chou said she came to the United States from Taiwan in 1996 to attend graduate school at Johns Hopkins University and stayed in Baltimore. An executive director of a nonprofit, she and her husband, Harry Chou, who is the school's principal, live in Cockeysville with their son, Isaac, 13, who has taken classes for eight years at the language school.

But that once-typical sequence of life events for immigrants is changing, they say.

"Shrinking enrollment is not unique to our school, but is a general phenomenon occurring at Chinese language schools across the U.S.," Henry said, noting there are 27 similar schools in the Washington-Baltimore area. "It's a question of supply and demand."

The economy in Taiwan is doing well and the nightlife in the main cities there is livelier, with clubs still open at 2 a.m. even on weekdays, Grace Lee Chou said.

Added Henry: "They don't want to suffer the lifestyle here. They say it's too boring."

Grace Lee Chou said the school's leaders are also encountering fewer families from China in the Baltimore metro area.

"As older students graduate [from the Chinese Language School] and receive their certificates, younger students are not enrolling to take their places," she said.

American students would benefit from learning about the Chinese culture and getting a foundation in Mandarin, the administrators say. It is spoken by nearly 1 billion people, making it a vital language to know for global communication, they point out.

According to the U.S. State Department's Foreign Service Institute, Chinese is an exceptionally difficult language to learn and requires more than 2,000 hours of study by a native English speaker to reach general proficiency. It is top-rated for difficulty as Category V along with Arabic, Japanese and Korean.

Liu, who teaches second-year students at the school, said Chinese pronunciation is definitely hard to master.

"But young children have a sharp ear and are very good at pronouncing the sounds and words," she said. "They learn by repeating and repeating."

A classroom setting is the best learning environment for children, Liu added.

"Parents have to push them a little bit and they may have to give up a lot of activities to come here," she said. "But we make it fun for them."

Tracy Crockett, an African-American parent whose 6-year-old son, Nicholas, is in Liu's class, said she has learned some Chinese as she helps him with his homework.

"Nicholas was reading 'The Cat in the Hat' at 18 months and has a high IQ and a propensity for language," said the Owings Mills resident.

"I enrolled him here because I want him to be ready for a global economy," she said, adding that sacrificing free time on Sunday afternoons to learn Chinese has been worthwhile.

Running the Chinese Language School takes commitment from students, parents and teachers alike, said Harry Chou, an information technology consultant.

"There are 2,000 characters to be learned and it can be intimidating, to be honest," he said. "We find ways to make it not tedious."

The school offers lessons in writing both conventional and simplified Chinese characters and parents can choose their children's course of study, he explained.

The preface of the second-year workbook titled "Living Mandarin" states that while the Chinese language has 3,000 frequently used characters, young children can build a foundation on 100 basic characters.

Cattleya Meers, whose son 7-year-old, Connor, is in his second year at the school, said she feels that learning the Chinese language and studying the culture is extremely important.

"He really needs to learn because it will help him in the future," said Meers, who can speak Cantonese and whose husband is Caucasian. "One of my cousins took Chinese for nine years and told me he hated it with every fiber of his being at the time but was really glad he did it later on in life."

One idea the school is working on to bolster enrollment is arranging with the Baltimore County Board of Education to award credits to high school students who take classes at the Chinese Language School, Henry said.

So important is the school's mission to its leaders that tuition costs have not been raised in over 10 years, said Grace Lee Chou.

"The board didn't want an increase because they didn't want cost to be a barrier for anyone," she explained.

"Our PTA is really devoted to our mission and we have super volunteers," she said. "The kids can't do this without the expertise and strength of community members."

For more information on the Chinese Language School of Baltimore, which meets Sundays from 2 to 4 p.m. during the school year, go to chineseschoolbaltimore.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Colleges and UniversitiesImmigrationJohns Hopkins UniversityU.S. Department of State
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