Sheau-Yuann Huang (Sh-ow Yun Hu-ong) considers herself lucky: she had a “Tiger Mom” who pushed her to start learning English three years before her peers. Most children in Taiwan start learning English in fifth and sixth grades.
By Sarah Varney
Sheau-Yuann Huang (Sh-ow Yun Hu-ong) considers herself lucky: she had a “Tiger Mom” who pushed her to start learning English three years before her peers. Most children in Taiwan start learning English in fifth and sixth grades. Mrs. Huang started in third grade. She grew up in Taiwan speaking Mandarin, Taiwanese, and English. Today she lives in Bronxville with her husband, a member of FDNY, and their 3½-year-old son.
Mrs. Huang’s head start learning English definitely helped her reach her initial goal, which was to teach English as a second language. “Now I’m glad my mother pushed me but I wasn’t happy at the time,” she said. Her first job teaching English as a second language was in Chinatown in New York. On weekends, she also taught Mandarin to some of the same students.
For the past three years, she has taught Mandarin to over 100 students at RMS and RHS. Her colleague, Yang Laoshi (Young Low-shee), shares the teaching load. “We started with three middle school classes and two high school classes three years ago with between eighty and ninety students,” said Mrs. Huang. The motivation for students to learn Mandarin instead of French, Spanish, or Latin varies. “Some of them see better job opportunities and some see their parents doing business internationally,” she said.
Whatever the motivation, one thing won’t change — learning Mandarin is very difficult. Characters are the name of the game and learning hundreds and even thousands of them is necessary for coming even close to fluency. That’s because only a standard set of the written characters is used. Oral Chinese is spoken by three billion Chinese people plus Taiwanese, Malaysian people and those in Singapore. The catch is that they speak over 200 dialects. Those dialects are often unintelligible to non-native speakers — even those who may live two villages away. There are as many as 50,000 characters. The Chinese government expects a person who attends nine years of schooling to know 3,500 of the most commonly used characters. To read a mainland newspaper, knowing 3,000 characters is a must.
“Each year, students should learn 100 to 125 characters,” said Mrs. Huang. “That number may increase as the classes are around longer and the students have more years of Chinese but there isn’t any set number.”
Currently there are four middle school classes and three high school classes offering Mandarin. Other area schools have had Mandarin classes for a longer period of time. For example, Mamaroneck High School has been offering Mandarin for the past ten years.
But the Rye City School District has solid support for Mandarin in the Rye schools. Superintendent Dr. Frank Alvarez introduced Mandarin classes to grades K-12 in the Montclair, N.J. school system. “The importance of China as an economic power is widely recognized, and we want our students to be competitive in this modern economy. Learning the Mandarin language and developing an understanding of the Chinese culture are valuable components in preparing our students for the future,” Alvarez said in an email.
Despite this, there is another challenge. Unlike the other languages taught in the school system, outside exposure to Mandarin is limited. “Another challenge that my students face is that they don’t see Chinese at home and not many of them use Chinese at home. The real world opportunities to use the language are limited,” Mrs. Huang said. “My goal is to expose them to the language and culture and get the students to speak, listen, read, and write in Chinese. I hope that they enjoy it enough to continue to study it in college.”