South Jersey teens learn Chinese, world lessons
Carly Q. Romalino, Courier-Post Published 12:59 p.m. ET March 31, 2017 | Updated 2:56 p.m. ET March 31, 2017
To the untrained ear, Tyasia Albert seemed to speak in code to her teacher.
Tyasia, a sophomore at Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden, pointed to a cartoon image of farm animals on the smart board. Her teacher Quynh Nguyen spoke, asking in Mandarin Chinese if the Camden student could name the animals in the image.
The teen flipped through her notebook, looking for the characters for goat, chicken and bird.
"I never thought I'd learn Chinese," said Albert, now in her third semester of Chinese. "It's getting really hard."
Nguyen is the only Mandarin teacher in Camden City School District. She is in her third year teaching at Brimm. The public academy is one of only three high schools in Camden, Gloucester and Burlington counties teaching one of the languages the U.S. Department of State considers a "critical" language: Mandarin, Russian and Arabic. Woodbury High School teaches Mandarin, and students at Cherokee High School in the Lenape Regional High School District learn Russian.
Mandarin – which does not have an alphabet, but requires strict memorization of characters – is a tough one to learn, Nguyen admits.
But her 80 students at the small, 200-student high school take it seriously.
They're speaking, writing and reading the 500 characters they know, and learning new vocabulary every day.
"They can converse. It's still very elementary, but they can ask and respond to their names, what they like to eat, where to go and what to do," Nguyen said.
"My students show their Chinese essays to their Spanish-learning classmates and they have no idea what's going on. It's like a secret code."
Brimm's principal added the Chinese language program after a trip to China, Nguyen explained.
"Most of those students spoke English," the teacher explained.
"From a perspective of preparing our students to be well-rounded citizens of the world, if our students aren't learning Chinese, maybe they're behind."
Support for Chinese language in public schools is music to Nina Gao's ears.
The Cherry Hill mother sends her son to a private Chinese language and culture school that meets at Cherry Hill's Beck Middle School on Saturday afternoons. The program costs about $400 a semester.
Her son is an elementary school student in the Cherry Hill district. Gao is among a small group of Cherry Hill parents who's been pushing the school board and superintendent to add Chinese to the curriculum for several years. The group hopes Mandarin will be added to Cherry Hill High School East's curriculum by the time their kids are enrolled there.
The district was close to a pilot program two years ago when a student survey hinted at interest in Mandarin. But the proposal was dropped quickly with new district administration and a second survey showing lower interest in adding the language as an elective, according to Gao.
Superintendent Dr. Joseph Meloche would not comment on the parents' petition.
The parent group went so far as to solicit teachers for the school district and research grant opportunities to fund teacher education and student programs, according to Gao.
"We should be more forward-thinking, pushing the curriculum to be up to date," Gao said, calling Cherry Hill a "premium" school district.
"We think we should update our curriculum and give our students an edge."
Mandarin Chinese is spoken by more than a billion people globally.
In the United States, Chinese is the third-most common language after English and Spanish. More than 230 million Americans speak only English, but about 60 million people speak a language other than English at home. More than 62 percent of those speak Spanish at home, and 4.2 percent, or about 2.8 million, speak Chinese, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
"We also feel this promotes understanding of the culture and diversity because there is such a rich environment in the school community," Gao said, adding the language lessons often accompany lessons in culture.
Cherry Hill is 11.7 percent Asian as of 2010, Census data suggests.
Camden City is 2.1 percent Asian, and Woodbury, where Chinese is also taught in high school, is 1.3 percent, according to Census data.
The Cherry Hill district's curriculum director will discuss the high school World Language program Monday at at a meeting of the Board of Education Curriculum & Instruction Committee, district spokeswoman Barbara Wilson said.
Chinese "is definitely part of the discussion," she added.
But Cherry Hill parent Sophia Li claims the district has "a basket of excuses" for not adding the program.
"We're not asking for the moon."
The group of parents is asking the district to add a teacher to the high school staff for what could be considered a specialty language among South Jersey schools offering Romance languages – Spanish, Italian, French and German.
Having a great teacher makes all the difference in starting a language program – particularly one like Mandarin – according to Justin Smith, World Languages Curriculum director for the Lenape district.
"To start a new program, the hardest part might be getting it off the ground," Smith said.
The district's Russian-lauguage program, offered only at Cherokee High School, happened by chance, he said.
Marian Barnum was hired as a Spanish teacher, but in her interview she revealed her Russian language certification.
"The board's eyes must have lit up," Smith said, adding the district wanted to seize the opportunity to use Barnum's additional asset.
"In the world of language teaching, being double certified is really helpful."
If Russian didn't take off, the district could have dropped the course without having to drop Barnum. She would have continued teaching Spanish.
The program, though, grew since 2005, adding courses as students advanced. Four years ago it offered an Advanced Placement Russian course for the first time, making it one of only 30 high schools in the country with students taking the AP Russian exam, Smith said.
"It has a reputation for being a harder language," he said.
"Our students love it. It doesn't seem to slow them down at all. It's one of those languages that can open doors for you in college and careers."
Doors to educational support for the U.S. State Department's critical languages are already ajar.
Rutgers University offers teacher training courses for Chinese and Russian.
Grants for educational programs and student opportunities to study abroad are available through organizations such as the State Department, Smith explained.
"School districts all the time are asking about what we can offer. How can we do it better? And languages are right there," Smith said.
Nguyen's students at Brimm already experience a real-life impact.
Maia Cone, a sophomore, added her Chinese language courses to her resume for a job with the school district. The teen believes it helped her get a part-time job.
"You say you know another language, and everybody thinks it's Spanish," Cone explained.
Employers and college admissions offices will be surprised to see Mandarin, she said.
"It's a matter of preparing our kids to be global citizens," Nguyen said.
"The rate at which the U.S. and China do business, we can't have our kids be behind."
Carly Q. Romalino; (856) 486-2476; firstname.lastname@example.org