Page 1

The Gift of Language Written

Designed by Elizabeth Leung and

Acknowledgements 嗚 �

Left: Empty room left by Homestead for staff meetings. Above: Student name tags used in the classroom

I would like to thank the teachers, students, and board members of West Valley Chinese Language School for allowing me to observe their classes and board meetings. Special thanks to Olivia Tam, Sandy Leung, and Kammy Hsiao for their continued support and allowing me to interview them. I would also like to thank everyone at Freestyle Academy for making this project possible.



7Foreword 自 序 8Introduction 前言 10Chapter 1 一 18Chapter 2 二 23Chapter 3 三 28Conclusion 結語 31Works Cited 參考

目錄 Contents


Foreword 自 序 M

y parents enrolled my brother and me in West Valley Chinese Language School (WVCLS) more than ten years ago. Thanks to my parents’ help, I was very successful in my classes. However, I resented having to attend WVCLS every week, an opinion I shared with my WVCLS friends. Every year, I would begin a new campaign to convince my parents that this would be the last year I attended WVCLS. I would complain that the classes were boring and pointless. As junior year approached, I used the rumored difficulty of the year as my excuse to quit. After a decade, my parents finally relented and promised that sophomore year would be my last year. As I left my sophomore graduation ceremony, I laughed to myself that I would never see WVCLS ever again. That same year, my mother joined the School Board and became more involved in the community. In the midsts of my junior year, I began to work on a documentary school project. Instantly, WVCLS sprung to my mind as a potential location to research. I had spent most of my life there, my teachers and classmates still attended the school, and my mother was on the School Board. After several months of closure, the resentment toward WVCLS I had accumulated over the years had faded, and I was almost eager to visit again. Loss of heritage language learners was something my mother had always lamented about, and something I had experienced firsthand as I watched many of my classmates dropping out of WVCLS before I had. When I began my research on the topic, I was surprised to see that a great amount of research had been done on the topic. Loss of heritage language was a worldwide trend for many languages. My mother helped me organize several interviews with school board and other staff members. Growing up listening to teachers going on and on about the importance of heritage and culture, I worried that the interviewees would all say the same thing, but when I went through the interviews, I discovered that they had much more to say on the topic. Although I asked each of them similar questions, each of them had very different answers and approaches. I began the Documentary project in early January, and the project took up most of my time until early April. I never thought I would be able to write a book within several months, and it certainly would not have been possible without my Freestyle teachers and classmates, as well as the support I Left: Map of the school’s classrooms received from WVCLS.


Introduction前言 I

n May, most students flood out from classrooms, fresh from their finals, eager to fully celebrate summer. But no group is more exuberant than the students of West Valley Chinese Language School (WVCLS). As soon as the bell rings, the classroom is deserted within seconds. Any control the teacher had over them is lost, and the students will leave for their long-awaited summer break, when no traces of their heritage language, the language that their immigrant parents passed down to them, will cross their minds until the dreary days of September approach. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon occurrence. China’s population totals a mind blowing 1.35 billion people, easily making it the world’s most populated country. Yet this number does not account for the other 50 million overseas Chinese, descendents of Chinese immigrants or immigrants themselves. Numbering 10.2 million people in the 2000 U.S. census, Asian Americans make up 3.8% of the U.S. popula-

tion. Chinese Americans, the largest subgroup in that category, constitute more than 20% of Asian Americans. (World Population Statistics) For its large population, the Republic of China maintains a largely homogenous population. Any non-Chinese person spotted in most parts of China (with the exception of the somewhat more international cities of Beijing and Shanghai) is almost sure to be a tourist. Not only is there little direct exposure to foreign cultures, the Chinese culture and history are revered, memorized by every student. My mother, who has lived in the U.S. for twenty years now, can still recite each of the dynasties, emperors and countless poems word for word. It would stand that the Chinese language would be equally revered, spreading internationally alongside Chinese immigration. But while Chinese has seen growth with nonChinese speakers as a secondary language, the Chinese heritage language population, the Chinese descendants that actually know Chinese, has dropped severely since the days of the Gold Rush, when immigrant Chinese

miners bonded together in Chinatowns. With each generation, the number of Chinese parents that will pass on the Chinese language decreases steadily (Xuchong Lui). How could such a culturally sensitive Chinese population not also pass down that same zealousy to its descendents? Or is there something about the Chinese language that made it unsuitable to overseas Chinese immigrants? And if it is impossible to learn Chinese as a heritage student, then why do many immigrant parents still push the language onto their children? Don’t they

know any better? Parents know that in such a competitive economy, a second language would greatly boost their child’s chance of success in the future. China has one of the top economies in the world, rapidly growing in size with each passing year. Job opportunities are everywhere, and with both English, the most widely spoken language internationally, and Chinese in their arsenal, Chinese heritage students in the U.S. stand a good chance. Furthermore, knowledge of the language helps shape their child’s cultural identity. Immigrant parents want to bond to their children through common experiences and cultural values, many of which rely directly on the language (Kim). This desire is not entirely one sided. Although as children, they may not have realized the immediate advantages of learning Chinese, many WVCLS alumni, now fully grown, return to the campus to reunite with their old classmates and teachers and give back to the community that fostered their childhood. The knowledge and friends they have gained are what dominate their memories of WVCLS. While they may not compare to the importance of the mother language, such as English in the US, heritage languages are still worth the time and effort in the long run.


Chapter 1 a dying language


very week, a luminescent parent volunteer swings an old fashioned bell to signal seven o-clock. The students who are still roaming the halls flood reluctantly into the classroom. Only four hours after their teacher dismissed them to a carefree weekend, they find themselves once again in a stuffy building. The stone plate in the front of the


school reads “Homestead High School.� But for two hours every Friday night, it is no longer bustling Homestead High; it is heritage language-based West Valley Chinese Language School. Formed fifty years ago as a program for Chinese parents to pass on their culture to their children, West Valley Chinese Language School serves as a place

for Chinese children to explore their heritage. The curriculum offers speaking, writing, and listening components - all of which are heavily integrated in the two hour sessions. Students learn the language of their ancestors, while parents interact with like-minded individuals who share similar experiences and struggles. The school could be de-

scribed as an oasis for Chinese immigrants and their children. But it is not always thought as so. The student body, which used to fill the three main buildings with cheerful noise, now only inhabits one building. Student numbers have dropped to less than 400 students. Enrollment falls lower every passing year. However, West Valley Chinese Language School is only demonstrating a trend exhibited by whole heritage languages: more and more people are opting to abandon their heritage language for their mother language, usually English in the United States (Lu). Heritage languages, languages passed down through their ethnicity, seem to hold little significance, while the mother language, the language used in their country, appears more pragmatic. For second and third generation Chinese, heritage languages do not hold the same relevance as it did for their parents. Second generation Chinese are usually bilingual if not English dominant, and by the third generation, Chinese descendents are predominantly English speak-

Top: Students during their 10 minute break Below: Students using note cards to learn the characters Left: Staff in a board meeting


ing (Ho). 79% of Chinese American participants in a survey reported that visiting China was the largest factor in learning Chinese (Rong Liu). By the third generation, bonds to relatives living in China have faded, and irregular visits for travel or business will be the only contact. Unlike Spanish heritage students, Chinese hardly contributes, if at all, to the cultural identities of second and third generation Chinese (Kim). Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to learn; instead of an alphabet, it is a largely (but not entirely) pictographic language that requires speakers to memorize thousands of characters just to manage basic competency. In A Scholarly Review of Chinese Studies, various historians agree that “ script capable of recording the full range of linguistic expressions can be purely pictographic or ideographic…”(404); Chinese also relies on common sounds and tones. Words with similar sounds will also look similar, but the four tones used in Chinese


don’t vary much in the ears of a non-native speaker. Using the wrong tone changes the meaning of the world completely. Even with four tones, there is plenty of room for overlap. Many words share the exact same pronunciation, but with different meanings and spellings. Imagine “there”, “they’re”, and “their”. American adults and children alike mix them up quite often. Now imagine if there was also “thair”, “thare”, “theire”, “theyr”, and “thehr.” Way more difficult, right? But West Valley Chinese Language School has an added challenge: it is a predominantly Cantonese teaching school. Cantonese is much less popular dialect than Mandarin; it is only spoken in the regions of Canton and Hong Kong. Its difficulty surpasses Mandarin, as it has nine instead of four tones. However, the level of difficulty may be what makes learning the language worthwhile. While some students may give up, those that do not will have gained an invaluable lesson and habit for their

future: perseverance. Olivia Tam, the Curriculum Director of WVCLS, notes, “for anyone that could graduate the Chinese school, I think it takes a lot of perseverance especially since this would not be the most popular or easiest extracurricular activity for them.” American public schools have noticed this trend of decreasing heritage language students, and true to the nature of American pluralism, they have taken measures to advocate bilinguality. Spanish students are often withdrawn from their English classes in order to focus on learning Spanish. But are public schools taking it too far? Interfering where they don’t belong? Alberto, a nine-year-old sixth grader, has been stuck for four years in “bilingual limbo.” In other words, he has been excluded from English classes entirely as he learns Spanish. It is taken as fact that he will eventually learn English, but the school is delaying his entrance into English classes to not

Right: Ms. Lam teaching the seventh grade

“it takes a lot of perserverance...”


distract him from his Spanish studies. “I ask the teacher all the time if I can be in English class,” Alberto complains. But for all his efforts, his teachers “just say no.”

Without access to classroom attention, Alberto resorts to watching TV to learn what little English he can. (qtd. Freedman) While public schools may

not have inspired students to learn their heritage language, it has provided a source of inspiration to parents. As perhaps the largest resource of heritage

Left: First graders listening attentively , Below: Preparation for the 50th anniversary

language, parental support is irreplaceable to a student’s learning. When Kammy Hsiao took her daughter to kindergarten, she was told by her daughter’s teacher that “it’s okay if [her daughter] doesn’t know English,

she’ll learn here, but keep [her] mother language.” Confident that children could easily learn English and their heritage with both exposure at home and school, teachers are avid believers of bilinguality. They pass this con-

fidence to the parents they interact with, emboldening them to pass on their heritage language. Hsiao recalls that she felt incredibly moved by the teacher and “put those words into [her] heart.”










learn here, but keep your mother language.”

äşŒChapter 2 heritage vs. secondary students

Above: Teachers teach a variety of aspects of Chinese culture, including poems



lthough the amount of heritage students may be falling, the opposite seems to be true for secondary language Chinese learners, many of which are not of Chinese heritage. Secondary language Chinese learners are motivated, engaged students that will often exceed heritage students in their mastery of the language. What is responsible for the difference in competency? Motivation. Most secondary language learners chose Chinese of their free will (Lu). Public schools offer many languages; why choose Chinese over French or Spanish? Many who choose Chinese will do so for China’s blooming economy. China has the second largest economy in the world, after the United States. Hong Kong, a predominantly Cantonese speaking area, is one of the “Four Asian Tigers”, areas that underwent rapid economic development in the


late twentieth century; today, it is one of the world’s largest financial centers. With this in mind, secondary students have a clear goal: their future career. Jobs in China and Hong Kong are common thanks to their expanding economy, and with both Chinese (to communicate with business associates) and English (the international language) knowledge, they stand a good chance of

getting the job. On the other hand, heritage students are often schooled in their language from a young age by their parents and therefore have no real say in the matter (Tam). They lack the initiative to learn; sitting in the classroom is but a weekly routine for them, just two hours to sleep through. According to a survey conducted on American born Chinese, al-

though the majority associated “being Chichinese immigrants who have little nese” with the Chinese language, only 14% beknowledge of american ways and continue to lieved speaking fluent Chinese was part of live under chinese culture and traditions what it meant to “be Below: Sign of classroom 102 (seventh grade), Left: Students struggle to understand Chinese” (Liu). Simply put, American born Chinese do not find their heritage language particularly important to their cultural identity. Furthermore, in the ChineseAmerican community, there is a great distinction between Chinese immigrants and American born Chinese. The term “fob” (fresh generations who will be more granted that their children will off boat) in the Asian American influenced by American culture as well. Learning the language community refers to Chinese than Chinese culture. Chinese is “normal” to Chinese parents, immigrants who have little immigrants find it shameful for as they were raised with it; thus, knowledge of American ways American born Chinese to not children receive little encourageand continue to live under Chispeak the language; parents feel ment to continue the language nese culture and traditions (Ho). as though they lose face if their after high school, when their “Fob” distinguishes Chinese imchildren only speak English parents’ influence will no longer migrants from their “Ameri(Liu). Since parents cling to their dictate their education. canized” children and following Chinese heritage, they take for

“FOB” -


三 Chapter 3 I

the three-pronged challenge

n the later half of the twentieth century, the decision of the official language of China dwindled down to two choices: Cantonese and Mandarin. When the votes were tallied up, the whole country was shell-shocked at the results: a perfect tie. To settle the dispute, an important political figure fluent in both languages made the final call. Despite his Cantonese origins, he voted in favor of Mandarin, the easier-to-learn, more convenient dialect. Other attempts at language consistency, such as the development of Simplified Chinese, a writing system consisting of eas-

ier-to-write versions of existing characters, have only increased confusion. While mainland China has made the transition to Simplified Chinese, Hong Kong and Taiwan cling to Traditional Chinese, and resulting immigration leads to an almost even distribution of Simplified and Traditional Chinese (Li), complicating learning needlessly for overseas students. Chinese itself, a language entrenched in 5000 years of development, perhaps cannot (and will not) change to fit the needs of overseas Chinese. But the involved people can. WVCLS can be divided into

three groups of people: staff, parents, and students. Parents shove their children to learn Chinese from a young age, while students meet this desire with equally strong disdain for the language, possibly because of the pressure. The staff are forced to navigate through the opposing viewpoints to try to find a common intersection. Compromise is a timely process requiring weeks of debate. And time is not something WVCLS has on their side. “There are still a lot of activities going on every night,” explains Sandy Leung, principal of WVCLS. “ that they run through smoothly, we sort of need to fight

Left: Staff during the board meeting


against time.” Teachers, often the mediator between the parents’ and child’s clashing attitudes, seem to be the most likely party to change. However, inevitably, teachers will cater to one side or the other and will have to face both sides of their decision. Most teachers will side with the parents, sharing with them a similar upbringing and ideals, sending students reeling away from the pressure and “old-fashioned” traditional Chinese morals. The

other side of the spectrum, the teachers who cater more with the students, will face a different problem: backlash from the parents. Teachers of this sort focus on the more entertaining side of Chinese studies: historical storytelling and more culture - rather than language - based teachings, causing students to listen more attentively but parents to complain ferociously of the lack of valuable lessons. Finding common ground is certainly difficult, but is it

completely impossible? Kammy Hsiao, the teacher of the ninth and tenth grade at WVCLS, has expanded the curriculum to include both more parent-approved textbook learning as well as more culture based learning which seems to appeal to students. As the teacher of the ninth and tenth grade, Hsiao will teach her students through two grades. “I will teach them for two years, so I will divide it so that one year I’m teaching three chapters, and the next year, I

teach the other three chapters,” she said. Three chapters, no matter how slowly she goes, will not take up an entire year, so what will Hsiao do with the remaining time? To balance out teaching from the book, “... I gave [the students] a survey on culture,” she clarified. “They go and select what aspects of culture they want to learn.” By selecting the curriculum through a survey, students have a voice in what they will learn and become more engaged during class. To further involve

students, Hsiao teaches through multiple mediums, including flash cards and Youtube videos. Parents, on the other hand, may not be able to engage students directly, since their perspectives on Chinese learning are entirely contradictory. But they too contribute to the school’s atmosphere. Concerned parents are what make up the school board and many of the leading figures of the school. Parents direct most of the activities of the school and donate the most to

the school’s cause. When I asked Tam, Leung, and Hsiao about their motives for coming to this school and contributing to it, I received a single unanimous answer. Their kids. In other words, their experiences as parents seeking a school for their children brought them to WVCLS. The students themselves, then, seems to be the last step of the problem. Having been forcibly submerged in Chinese learning for most of their lives, most of them have already succumbed


to their pre-perceived notions of disengagement and boredom. Others will strive for further learning, taking Chinese classes at their regular high schools and taking the Chinese SAT subject test. Regardless of their goals, Chinese heritage students rarely reach the level of native speakers. According to an university Chinese heritage student, when he visited China, the native Chinese would comment that his Chinese was strange. They quickly amended that his pronunciation was good, but his use of casual language differed from natives. Whenever he sneezed, he would say “duibuqi” (excuse me, I’m sorry). Chinese natives had no such practice and found his use of the term foreign. (Lu) Many people may flinch away from this truth. If you can’t even properly learn the language, what’s the point? they wonder. But they may be judging learning Chinese on the wrong

scale. Chinese is a language that takes even native speakers years to learn; few people in the world (if any) will know all 100,000 Chinese characters (a number which is rapidly growing). “I think this is mostly a platform for them to build their foundation,” Leung says. A platform giving heritage students the extra boost up they might need to catch on to the language and take their learning to a higher level, in China or at an university. Whether they choose to continue the lan-

guage or not, students will have received the exposure, granting them the opportunity to do so if they want. When asked about what she most wanted students to remember about their time at WVCLS, Leung replied, “About their teachers. About their friends. And I think that they will at least learn something, they will learn how to speak Cantonese.” Left and Above: during board meetings, the staff work to improve school activitjes


結語 C onclusion A s the school year dwindles to a close in late May, the graduating students will prepare speeches which they will present before the entire school on the last day of school. Cloaked in long black gowns and academic caps, they will march before their parents, teachers, and underclassmen. Some will reflect upon the good times they have shared with their friends. Others will thank their teachers and parents. But nearly all of them will admit that they learned much more throughout the years than they expected or realized. WVCLS celebrates its fiftieth anniversary as a Chinese school this year. Alumni and ex-principals alike have flocked back together to help the current school board and student council prepare for the celebration. The newer members of the community explore the school’s history

while older members unite over their nostalgia. But to say that WVCLS is stuck in the past is far from the truth. This year, WVCLS also casts aside the traditional textbook series it has used for decades in favor of a newer textbook. Critics berate it for its increased difficulty and lack of historical and traditional aspects. However, others welcome it as a modified tool of Chinese learning that will connect more with American students. The new textbook “...has a lot of online tools, games,” Sandy describes. “So [students] can learn more, play more games, so they have more interest and ways to learn.” Written and manufactured in California, the new textbook directly targets overseas Chinese learners in the U.S. Many of the lessons cover day-to-day activities, and the textbook teaches students to prepare them for

AP and SAT tests, giving it a more pragmatic touch (Hsiao). In contrast, the old textbook focused much more on “...history that the kids here find hard to relate” (Tam). Having been raised in America, Chinese history holds much less significance for heritage students than it did their immigrant parents. But by no means has the emphasis on culture decreased; its stance has merely shifted. Instead of focusing on historical, seemingly outdated stories that emphasize respect or other moral values, the new textbook covers “more recent events, like who create the Chinese input computer software” (Tam). Olivia expands that “’s not just the ability to speak the language, but the ability to relate to the Chinese culture and to the Chinese events; I think those are equally important to just learning the language.”


not just the ability to speak the language,

but the ability to relate to the


and to the

think those are





equally important to just learning the language.”


Photo: Sandy Leung (principal) and Alex Ng (ex-principal and Board member)


Works C參考 ited Freedman, Samuel G. “Latino Parents Don’t Want Their Children in Bilingual Education.” Bilingual Education. Ed. Janel D. Ginn. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2008. At Issue. Rpt. from “It’s Latino Parents Speaking Out On Bilingual Education Failures.” New York Times 14 July 2004: B-9. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 11 Feb. 2014. Heritage Languages in America. Alliance for the Advancement of Heritage Languages, n.d. Web. 3 Feb 2014. Ho, Jennifer. “Cultural Heritage Language in Third Generation Chinese-Americans.” University of California, Davis, 12 April 2011. Web. 11 Feb. 2014. Hsiao, Kammy. Personal Interview. 7 Feb. 2014. Kim, Su Yeong and Ruth K. Chao. “Heritage Language Fluency, Ethnic Identity, and School Effort of Immigrant Chinese and Mexican Adolescents.” n.p., Jan 2009. Web. 28 Jan. 2014. Leung, Sandy. Personal Interview. 7 Feb. 2014. Li, Duanduan and Patricia A. Duf. “Issues in Chinese Heritage Language Education and Research at the Postsecondary Level.” The University of British Columbia, 2008. Web. 4 March 2014. Liu, Rong. “Maintaining Chinese as a Heritage Language in the United States: What Really Matters?” University of Arizona, 2008. Web . 28 Jan. 2014. Lu, Xuchong and Guofang Li. “Motivation and Achievement in Chinese Language Learning: A Comparative Analysis.” National Foreign Language Resource Center, 2008. Web. 14 Feb. 2014. “Reforms Urged to Attract Overseas Chinese.”, 11 March 2012. Web. 4 March 2014. Rodriguez-Galindo, Alejandra, and Jo Worthy. “English Instruction Could Lead to Heritage Language Resistance.” Bilingual Education. Ed. Janel D. Ginn. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2008. At Issue. Rpt. from “Mi Hija Vale Dos Personas: Latino Immigrant Parents’ Perspectives About Their Children’s Bilingualism.” Bilingual Research Journal 30.2 (Summer 2006): 579-601. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 28 Jan. 2014. “Some Georgia Schools Make Mandarin Mandatory.” Weekend Edition Saturday 8. Sept. 2012. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 28 Jan. 2014. Tam, Olivia. Personal Interview. 31 Jan. 2014. Want, Shuhan C. “Heritage Language Learners.” National Council of State Supervisors of Foreign Languages, 2002. Web. 13 Feb. 2014. World Population Statistics. Web. 4 March 2014. Ed. Zhang, Haihui, et. al. “A Scholarly Review of Chinese Studies in North America.” Ed. Goldin, Paul, et. al. Association for Asian Studies, Inc, 2013. ePDF. 26 Feb. 2014.









Elizabeth Leung lives in Mountain View, California. A junior attending Mountain View High School and Freestyle Academy, she has experimented with various mediums, including photography and animations. Despite being a web student at Freestyle, Elizabeth also enjoys editing videos and creating computer generated flashy visual effects. She has a passing interest in mythology and diverse cultures, both of which she tries to incorporate into her other works. She attended WVCS for more than ten years.


To learn more, visit www.freestyle.mvla. net/~elizabethl.

Elizabeth Leung

The Gift of Language Written

Designed by Elizabeth Leung and

Elizabeth leung  
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