By Huang Chao, Xia Lin
LOS ANGELES, July 10 (Xinhua) -- The 135-year-old Castelar Elementary School in downtown Los Angeles, California in west U.S., never stops its efforts of academic diversification.
With a Mandarin language immersion program in full wing for six years for K-5, the school rides the trend again, as U.S. learners of Chinese language are becoming younger.
"The youngest students I have are the five-year-old, the ones in preschool. The younger they are, the faster they learn," teacher Wendy Yang told Xinhua.
Principal Wing Fong also noticed the advantage, saying that "when you learn at a very young age, you do not have that accent that older people have when they tend to learn the language."
More specific details came from Program Director Magaly Lavadenz, who said that "it starts in kindergarten. And also we are seeing a sprinkling of preschool programs that are offering Mandarins."
HALF OF ALL STUDENTS LEARN MANDARIN
In Castelar, seven teachers give the Chinese lessons, attracting 300 to 350, or half of its total students.
The kindergarten teachers that teach Mandarin do not speak a word of English in class, so the students can be immersed in the program.
At their class, children can recite Chinese ancient poem to its tune, mention name of typical Chinese food, start their speech by quoting Chinese idiom, and even dance to the melody of Chinese pop songs.
"I like learning Chinese, for it is interesting. You can speak in Chinese, and you can talk with Chinese people in their mother tongue," student Alice told Xinhua.
Why do American students start to learn Mandarin since so young?
"For it helps you find jobs (in the future), and even develop careers in China. Speaking in Chinese can bring you more employment opportunities. China is now so strong that more exchanges are on offer," explained Yang.
For the ongoing summer holiday, Castelar, the second oldest school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, joins hands with Loyola Marymount University (LMU) to offer a two-week StarTalk Camp for immersed Mandarin learning.
It offers linguistic training through literature, arts and sports for 120 regional 1st-4th graders. The focus is on re-discovering the Silk Road, which was an international route to facilitate the ancient trade between China and European and African countries.
"So the students from different grade levels study different cities (on the route). The three major cities that we study would be Turpan, Dunhuang, and Xi'an," Program Leader Krystin Wong told Xinhua.
At the camp, students study clothing, weather, trading, merchandise and poems, as well as learn how to greet people and introduce themselves.
"We tell them about the cultural difference. Chinese people think that eating is an important thing, so either day or night they greet each other with such a sentence, 'Have you had your meal?' My students are very interested in this and keep asking me about it. They then greet me with the same sentence, which is typical in China in contrast with 'Hello!' and 'How are you!'" said Yang.
FOURTH LARGEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FOR U.S. CHILDREN
Castelar is one of the many schools that provide Chinese courses in the United States.
According to the census report released by the American Councils for International Education in June, "explosive growth" has been seen in the number of American children choosing to learn Chinese.
After Spanish, French and German, Mandarin has become the fourth largest foreign language pursued by the U.S. students at elementary and high schools.
Assistant Principal of Castelar Salvador Sandoval's daughter is a case in point.
"She (my daughter) started learning Mandarin in kindergarten. We thought it would be a unique opportunity for her to learn Chinese, not only the Chinese language, but also the Chinese culture, which is very important to us," Sandoval told Xinhua.
The influence of Mandarin learning has been visible at school and after school.
"I see them eating more Chinese food. They go to the Chinatown Library, checking out books and videos in Mandarin. It is not just in English," said Fong.
QUALIFIED TEACHERS IN HIGH DEMAND
As the Chinese immersion program becomes widely accepted in recent years, shortage of staff teachers and exchange channels begin to challenge the administrator.
"One of the issues about the Mandarin dual-language program, not just for us, pretty much for the entire country, is finding qualified teachers that can teach," said Fong.
Lavadenz pinned hope on local talents, saying that "we live in Los Angeles. This is a very rich diversity city. We have lots of Chinese immigrants and Chinese heritage community members. They should think about becoming teachers, because they are second-career people who can get the credential and license to become a teacher."
While local human resources are fully tapped for recruitment, teachers and schools in China are heavily scouted, too.
"I am trying to see if we can find a sister school (in China), where we can exchange ideas, and maybe have their teachers come out and observe us. We can go and observe them, and have students work with each other and be pen-pals," added Fong.
It is estimated that the shortage of lecturers eligible to teach Chinese stands at 5,000 to 8,000 in the United States.
This is surely a gap to bridge, but at the same time a new trove to pan for.
(Amanda Zhang contributed to the writing.)