More Students Learning Chinese, So More Teachers Learning How to Teach It

Sharon Wen is the director of Chinese Studies at the University of Houston and also leads the StarTalk program to train Chinese language teachers.
There are strong ties between Houston and China. In terms of business, Houston is China’s tenth largest U.S. gateway for international trade. In terms of people, more than 40,000 Chinese residents make Houston their home. Those ties are trickling into the classroom.

With growing interest in learning Chinese language and culture, more schools are offering Chinese.

But that creates an interesting problem, says Sharon Wen, director of Chinese Studies at the University of Houston.

“On one hand there is an urgent, big demand. On the other hand, we don’t have enough qualified teachers, so our program tries to fill that gap.”

That program is called StarTalk. It’s part of a federal effort, started by then President George W. Bush, to train more people in critical languages, like Chinese.

Wen says the program trains teachers to focus their instruction on students and the meaning behind the words — not just memorization.

“So students know how to use the language and in what way to use the language.”

She says Texas is “fertile ground” for Chinese language instruction, with its large Asian population.

In the Houston Independent School District, 20 schools, from elementary to high school, offer Chinese language classes.

In fact, a Mandarin Chinese Language Immersion Magnet School opened last year in Bellaire. There kids as young as five learn how to speak Chinese.

There’s also a need for college level instruction.

At the University of Houston, more students are graduating with a major in Chinese studies, says Wen.

Xianping Liu teaches Chinese at a heritage school, but she wants to teach her native language at a public school. She’s one of 20 teachers taking the workshop this week at the University of Houston. They’re learning new skills and theories to better teach Chinese as a second language.

Liu says she can relate to her students.

“When I first start to speak English, after I learned so many years of English, I found it was so hard for me to talk.”

She remembers there were words in her head but they just wouldn’t come out.

“When we come to this camp, the professors let us know how to encourage and put this situation to let the kids to talk, to put everything in their mind out of their mouth.”

Ni Hao” is one of the first things she teaches her students.

That’s hello in Mandarin Chinese.

Chinese studiesHere Liu is a student again. She and other teachers take turns giving practice lessons.

Wen insists it’s not that hard to learn Chinese.

But some instructors — even native speakers — say teaching Chinese is another matter.

Maxine Hunt used to work in IT. Then she became a mom and wanted a more flexible job.

“First, I thought, ‘Wow, teach Chinese. That will be easy, you know, and then I started to realize, ‘Wow, this is not as easy as I thought.”

She now teaches at a heritage school in Clear Lake and at an after school program Inside the Loop.

She’s seen more students who aren’t learning the language for their family heritage. Instead, they have business ties to China or enjoy Chinese culture.

“And I start to think, you know, this is not just for the Chinese community, this is for whole Houston, whole country, or maybe the whole world. I need to do more. I have to have a big goal about what I’m doing.”

 

MORE INFORMATION

In the Houston Independent School District, 20 schools offer Chinese as a foreign language. They are:

Elementary

  • Durham
  • Kolter
  • Mandarin Chinese Language Immersion Magnet School
  • Northline
  • TH Rogers Elementary

Middle

  • Grady
  • Jackson
  • Johnston
  • Lanier
  • Pershing
  • Pin Oak
  • TH Rogers Middle

High School

  • Austin
  • Bellaire
  • Carnegie Vanguard
  • Furr
  • Houston Academy for International Studies
  • Lamar
  • Sharpstown International School
  • Westside

Source: HISD

Bio photo of Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for KUHF, including K-12 and higher education.

Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and regularly contributed to WLRN, the local NPR affiliate and Miami Herald news partner...