Chinese Heritage School fills key language gap

Program one of few in area specializing in Cantonese dialect


Staff Writer

SOUTH BRUNSWICK – A teaching assistant sits at the front of a room, before an audience of about 11 4-year-olds, and asks her class for things they can do with one’s hands. They respond with answers such as washing their face and brushing their teeth. A pause.

“Can you say it in Chinese?”

The room erupts, the children enthusiastically calling out Chinese words for the motions that the woman in front is pantomiming. They are the youngest class in the Chinese Heritage School at Crossroads South Middle School, and they seem excited about the language.

The Chinese Heritage School is one of only a handful of Cantonese-speaking Chinese schools in the tristate area, a fact that has drawn students from as far away as Staten Island, N.Y., and Pennsylvania. Most Chinese schools teach their lessons in Mandarin, which is the Chinese dialect spoken in most parts of China. This makes lessons difficult for those who have grown up in Cantonese-speaking households. Cantonese, the second-largest dialect, is spoken natively in the areas around the southern Chinese cities of Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Macao.

It was this need for a Cantonese-speaking program that prompted the formation of the Chinese Heritage School in 2000.

“We were at another Chinese school in East Brunswick, and at that time, we were using the Mandarin school’s material,” said Mai Chu, who teaches prekindergarten at the school and was one of the founding teachers. “It does not quite fit our children because this school teaches in Cantonese, and so after five years, most of the teachers from the old school – we [had] seven teachers – said, Why don’t we use some of our own materials and look into some books from Hong Kong? Most of the teachers go back to Hong Kong about once a year to visit relatives, and they found more suitable material. Since we had the material, seven teachers and we have a lot of great parents helping out, we thought maybe we could form our school.”

The Chinese Heritage School began with 20 students in one of the teachers’ basement. Over the past six years, however, the student population has grown to more than 200, with the number of teachers growing to 19.

Students at the school, which holds classes on Saturdays, mostly study Chinese language and culture. Most were born in this country but have immigrant parents who want to keep their traditions and culture alive.

From 9 a.m. to noon, the students are involved in language classes where they learn to read and write in Chinese. According to the school’s Web site, the goal is that, by the time the student graduates, he or she will be able to hold conversations in Chinese as well as be able to follow a newspaper.

“They don’t speak as much Chinese around the house as they [parents] would like them to speak at home, so they need to learn the Chinese language, the Chinese culture,” said Bill Wu, the vice principal of the school.

“A lot of parents actually, they speak a second dialect, Mandarin. But because they want to keep our dialect, our tradition, alive, we want to continue the Cantonese school,” Chu said.

According to Chu, there are also students who come from Cantonese-speaking families but don’t get to use the language much outside of their homes. The school gives them the opportunity to interact with more people in Chinese than they ordinarily would. The classes begin with the basics, one or two words a day. Students who get through the grades eventually make their way to the advanced class.

On a recent Saturday, Yui Wah Lee’s class was a long string of sentences in Chinese, punctuated by the occasional phrase or sentence in English. The class was small, no more than nine students, with three sitting at each table. During the class, he confiscated no less than two notes being passed, although he does not comment on whether they were in English or Chinese.

The week before was the Chinese New Year, and each student wrote a report on it. This time, Lee was instructing them to work together to make a group paper, and he explained the process through which one should write it. The class dissolves into hushed discussion when he asks each group of three to select a leader.

Melanie Chan, 11, has found many of the classes easy since she first started coming to the Chinese Heritage School about two years ago.

“They’re kind of easy, since I came from Hong Kong and stuff,” said Chan.

According to Wu, it can be difficult to sustain interest in the school as students get older. With age comes other obligations that some students prioritize over the school.

“As the kids get older and they have more pressure from their regular school, more homework and more interests, and we can’t compete with the time to come to Chinese school, so a lot of kids will end up doing other things instead of coming to Chinese school,” Wu said. “For example, a lot of kids, when they get to fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade, they have more and more sports and maybe a longer sports season and would need to practice or compete on Saturdays. Younger kids don’t usually have things like that.”

The school is entirely independent, with no connection to the South Brunswick School District. It’s funded entirely by tuition and donations from parents.

According to Wu, the thing that has been the largest accomplishment has been the effective combination of language classes with cultural events, which reinforce both language and culture.