A strategic lesson in language

A strategic lesson in language

After devoting a lifetime to working in bilingual education, Gay Yuen knows the spectrum of approaches for teaching language.

Portrait of Gay Yuen.

Why is it easier for youngsters to learn language?

Gay Yuen, an education professor and specialist in bilingual education programs, says there are several reasons:

  1. They are less intimidated, worried or bashful than adults about mispronouncing words, or having an accent.
  2. Their ears are more attuned to varied sounds. Research shows that with puberty, our ears stop listening to sounds — including tones — that do not exist in our first language. In Mandarin, specifically, that can be especially difficult because the language is tone-based.
  3. With children, there are more varied ways to teach language -acting it out, creating arts and crafts, etc — that make it fun and educational.

“If you teach children that language is fun, they take to it like a duck to water!” Yuen said.

As a child, Yuen, an immigrant from Hong Kong, experienced the compensatory approach, in which native languages are ignored in an English-only school environment.

As a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), she worked to create a balance for students, supplementing English and other core classes with Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese.

And now, as a professor in the Charter College of Education, Yuen has helped forge another path for language learners. At the nearby, predominantly Latino, City Terrace Elementary School, 40 kindergarteners and first-graders learn through a Dual Immersion Program, in which half of the lessons are in English and half in Mandarin. This is the first Chinese program of its kind in the Los Angeles Unified School District and Southern California, and it represents a growing national movement to teach strategic languages — such as Chinese and Arabic — to kids.

The thinking is that by giving children exposure to key, global languages, you can provide them with a competitive edge when they enter the workforce in a global market.

Wanting to boost his predominantly low-income, Latino students, principal Christopher Ortiz and lead teacher Joyce Hsin ’04 launched the program two years ago at City Terrace. Their efforts were aided by Yuen, the University’s Pacific Rim Institute, LAUSD Asian Pacific and Other Languages Office, the Consul General of the People’s Republic of China, and others.

“This gives you a window of what is to come,” Yuen said. “People will need to be able to communicate and do business in many languages … and these children are extending thoughts and thinking critically in Mandarin.”

In the fall, the school will add a second-grade class. Each year a new grade level is added as the campus builds toward a complete kindergarten through fifth-grade program.

Lead teacher Hsin points out that learning two languages simultaneously “pushes the kids to develop the critical thinking skills they need to do well in all subjects.” She said all of her children are excelling in both English and Mandarin.

“This opens their horizons,” Hsin said. “When they go on to compete in a global economic community, they will be better prepared.”

The students’ success has garnered the attention of other educators and districts, as well. The Pasadena Unified School District, in fact, is launching its own Dual Immersion Mandarin English Program for the same age group in the fall.

Yuen says she couldn’t be happier with the growth of the programs and the students’ learning capabilities.

“I want to see this program carried to other schools,” Yuen says. “And (Cal State L.A.) is in the perfect place to help do that. We are at the Pacific Rim, we are in the San Gabriel Valley, we are one of the most diverse campuses in the nation.”