World languages migrate East: Chinese language program offers diversity in the classroom

Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter This Chinese language textbook shows students the symbols for everyday items. -
Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter This Chinese language textbook shows students the symbols for everyday items.
— image credit:

As unlikely as it seems that a man with the name,Gordon Davenport, is teaching Chinese, how the language classes came to be at Mercer Island High School is just as unorthodox.

As diversity in the classroom as well as the world has become more recognized, the language program at the school has diversified as well.

Davenport, a Chinese language teacher, has been at MIHS. since 1997, and has witnessed the growth in the Chinese language program over the years. Until 10 years ago, it was struggling to take root.

According to Davenport, the school first attempted to establish an enrichment program; the class would meet after school hours, and students could get an introduction to a tiny bit of the Chinese language. However, the program was never able to fully take off, and it eventually died.

Finally, about 10 years ago, Chinese was offered as an introductory course during regular school hours. At that time, second-year German language classes were replaced with beginning Chinese. The next year, no first or second-year German classes were offered, and eventually German was phased out and completely replaced by Chinese as a world language class.

Davenport said that the Chinese language program at MIHS is one of the oldest ones in the area, along with Snohomish. He considers the school to be a pioneer in the subject.

“We’ve grown from one class in ’97; next year, we’re even adding another.” There will be a total of eight Chinese language classes offered at the high school. “It’s catching on,” said Davenport. “Every year adds.”

In addition to Chinese, French and Spanish are offered to students. Davenport says, “Most people take Spanish, and French has been around forever.” Last year, Davenport said excitedly, Chinese students finally outnumbered French students. There were 80 first-year Chinese students, enrolling as freshmen, to bring the total number of students taking Chinese up to 170-plus.

Although the demand is growing, Davenport said that the school is just not capable of including any other Asian languages into the curriculum. When they were first debating whether they would be replacing German with an Asian language, they had to carefully consider which language would be the most beneficial to students at this time. “You can’t open a newspaper without seeing China all over it,” said Davenport. In his opinion, Chinese is the language to know.

It seems that students agree with Davenport’s point of view; Chinese is growing faster than any other language.

Davenport says that he is unable to make a comparison between Mercer Island High School and other local schools, but he acknowledges that his Chinese program offers a new and innovative method of approaching the way in which language is taught and learned.

Instead of strictly grammar exercises, translation and drills, students can expect a more practical approach. Although Davenport agrees that grammar is important, he says that it is learned better once students are able to understand the language.

“If you’re understanding speech, the brain can learn the grammar.” It is Davenport’s belief that practical application in the beginning will make the technical side of the language easier to learn and understand throughout the curriculum.

“It’s not really an academic subject, it’s more about performance,” says Davenport. At least in the beginning, he adds. Davenport likens the beginning Chinese classes to the way a baby or a child learns a language: first they learn to speak; then they learn the grammar. They make mistakes along the way, and that is both fine and expected. It is the same in beginning Chinese classes.

Davenport’s 3-year-old son demonstrated to him the other day that he has learned an irregular verb, just by listening and copying what he hears. “All people do,” said Davenport. “You don’t learn, you acquire, subconsciously. It is more fun and efficient.”

At Mercer Island High School, the emphasis is on listening comprehension and vocabulary. “If a student can understand what they hear, it is a short leap to talking,” said Davenport. He said that reading is a good source of vocabulary — students begin learning how to recognize Chinese characters from day one — but that writing is the last skill a student needs to learn. “If you can’t speak, what are you going to write?” said Davenport. He doesn’t require his students to write Chinese characters from memory until their third year, although they are expected to practice. Instead, students use pinyin, the Chinese system of alphabetical spelling.

Mercer Island High School’s Chinese language program is modern, said Davenport, and their way has proven to produce a higher rate of proficiency in language in comparison with past methods.

Chinese has grown at Mercer Island High School, and that has created a greater demand for instructors. However, they only require one full-time and one part-time teacher as of yet. “Not because of the need, but because it’s new,” said Davenport.

Asian language classes have caught on in other high schools as well. In the Bellevue school district, Newport, Sammamish and Interlake High Schools all offer Chinese, while Bellevue High School has included Japanese in its curriculum. In the Lake Washington area, all schools except for Eastlake High School offer Japanese along with either French, German or Spanish; Eastlake High School and International School are the only high schools that do not have an Asian language option for students. Issaquah High School offers Japanese. Middle schools throughout the districts also offer Chinese and Japanese, and they then feed into a high school that offers the same language.

It should come as no surprise that the world language program is diversifying; according to Patricia Malatesta, the district bilingual coordinator, there are at least 19 different languages spoken in the district at the elementary school level.

“Within our ELL (English Language Learners) program, we have 19 or 20 languages,” said Malatesta. There are about 65 students currently enrolled in the program, but there are still many others who are bilingual or trilingual, and a large number of students have already exited the program. Most bilingual students are native Korean speakers, while the second-largest bilingual population speaks Chinese as their first language.

Mia Steere is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.

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