Mandarin is not a difficult language to learn, even for high school kids, says Ailien Hung. That’s a misconception about many languages but especially those from Asian countries, explained Hung, who teachers Chinese-Mandarin at Oak Park and River Forest High School. She’s in her second year at OPRF after doing her student teaching at Naperville Central and Naperville North high schools. OPRF’s Chinese language program is only four years old, but it’s popular among students taking the course — and their parents.
Still, many find speaking and writing the language to be daunting, said Hung, a native of Taiwan who’s been in the United States for nearly 20 years.
“Some felt it’s so difficult to write Chinese characters, and it’s not,” she insists.
Her students — about 50 kids total, spread over three classes — have faced those fears.
“It’s not that hard to learn a language, actually,” Hung said. “The first thing they came up to ask during open house was, ‘Is it very hard to learn a language, to write it, to recognize all those characters?’ After a while they realize it’s not that hard at all. There are many ways to learn a language.”
Hung uses a variety of methods in her classroom. They do some reading in class but mostly she has them speaking the language as much as possible. They also watch Asian movies with English subtitles.
“Speaking, reading, writing and conversing are the four big parts in my class,” Hung said. “For the amount of time they are exposed to the language, it’s very limited. So their reading ability is still developing even after three, four years of taking Chinese lessons in the high school. But it varies. It depends on every individual kid. Some kids are learning at a much quicker pace than others.”
As for the movies, the students are fond of Bruce Lee martial arts films, which Hung does let them view, but she also has them watch other genres to learn the language. In her first year, Hung took the students on a field trip to Chinatown in Chicago. Some students had been there before with their families, but for others it was the first time.
“Even though they had been to Chinatown before with their family, it was still a new experience for that kid to go on a school trip with teachers,” she said. “It was much more than going to a restaurant to eat or going to a parade and watch.”
She’s planning another trip to Chinatown this spring with all three classes, including those upperclassmen who went last year, and she hopes they’ll lead the tour for the younger students. They will also visit a restaurant and make dumplings. Last year, Hung had the students participate in a scavenger hunt around Chinatown.
As the faculty sponsor for the school’s student club, called the Chinese Cultural Society, Hung said she wants more activities for the students.
Along with learning the language, she is big on students learning about Chinese culture.
“They know that in the beginning of modern China, it was not Communism. The idea was a democratic nation. So that’s something that’s new to many kids,” Hung said.
Though the Chinese-Mandarin program’s popularity has steadily grown, it’s still unknown to a lot of people around campus, but she’s looking to change that.
OPRF was looking for a new Chinese teacher when Hung applied, encouraged by a friend to do so. The Taiwan native came to the United States 18 years. She taught middle school in her native country and before that had been a journalist there. Hung still has her native accent which comes into play with her students.
“It’s OK if you don’t say each other’s language perfectly. That’s one of the biggest challenges for non-heritage learners: tones,” she said. “I love to hear them say it in their American way. I also like to joke about my Chin-glish. I appreciate the kids to bear with my Chin-glish, but I love their Engli-nese.”