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November 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 3

Traveling the Internet in Chinese

For Chinese bilingual students, a ride on the Information Superhighway renewed cultural connections and boosted academic prowess, language skills, and self-esteem.

It was spring 1996 in San Diego. At the Bilingual Project Institute, a group of bilingual educators was listening to a speaker explain why shifting bilingual students to English-only classes was inevitable. “As more and more students are using the Internet in the classroom, they will have to master English because all information on the Net is in English.”In the crowd, a teacher raised her hand: “I'm afraid that may not be true. A teacher and his students in San Francisco are navigating the Internet using Chinese characters.”
Before I received a $1,000 check from the San Francisco Education Fund, I never believed my project, which enables Chinese bilingual students to use Chinese on the computer, would be funded. Of course I had no idea that in two years my students would become the first U.S. students to communicate in Chinese with people around the world and to publish what is probably the world's first online student newspaper in Chinese.

Losing the Chinese Students

Horace Mann Academic Middle School is a regular public school in the heart of the mission district in San Francisco. The school shares the common characteristics of most public inner-city schools in California: 54 percent of the students are classified as educationally disadvantaged youth, and more than 40 percent are limited English proficient or non-English proficient. As a Consent Decree school, Horace Mann Middle obtains generous funding from the state and federal governments. As a restructuring school, Horace Mann's teachers have more opportunities to introduce innovative teaching strategies to better serve the diverse student population.
In 1993, when I first came on board at Horace Mann, I was surprised to find the substitute Chinese bilingual teacher using Chinese to teach English and English to teach science. The 8th graders who were newcomers were just copying the missing words from their textbooks to their worksheets; they had no understanding of what they were doing even though they were working on the 3rd grade science curriculum.
The job was tough. Compared to the Latino student population, the Chinese student population in California is relatively small. (San Francisco is an exception. Chinese students are the most populous group in the San Francisco Unified School District.) While our Spanish bilingual science and social studies teachers used the Spanish version of the regular 8th grade textbook, our Chinese bilingual teachers had few Chinese materials that fully supported the content of the regular English textbooks.
My Chinese bilingual students were lost, both academically and emotionally. Having been taught the babyish stuff repeatedly, they became bored; having been cut off from their connection with their language and culture, they became depressed and had low self-esteem.

Translating the Curriculum

As a bilingual teacher, I believe that we should provide equal education opportunities to limited-English-proficient and non-English-proficient students. They should not be deprived of the right to access the same core curriculum as the English-speaking students. Being a science teacher, I thought of technology as a solution.
  1. By using a Chinese translation software program, within minutes students would be able to translate any English materials into Chinese.
  2. With the help of the translation program, a subscription to America Online, and a digitized writing pad, students would be able to use e-mail in Chinese to do research and to communicate with others who speak Chinese.
  3. Students would be able to produce their computer projects or electronic portfolios in Chinese.
The students were enthusiastic about learning the new technology. They launched a pen pal request in three of the Chinese language newsgroups and received some 300 e-mail messages from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, England, the United States, and even mainland China, where only the top scientists had access to experimental Internet services. For the most part, students picked pen pals who were near their age level, although some preferred to write to college students or to scientists. The lost cultural connection was suddenly restored.
The impact of this global networking in Chinese was greater than we had expected. Tom, a 7th grader, was surprised to learn that a scientist in China also was once a student in the U.S. and that he had faced the same struggle in adjusting to a new culture. Mary, an 8th grader, sent an e-mail message to a science fiction author in Hong Kong to challenge him:
el199611 fang p28
Translation: "Whales don't lay eggs. Please correct your description on page 3 of the book."
Tien received e-mail from Taiwan in both English and Chinese. His pen pal asked him for help: "My English essay is terrible. My dad grounds me whenever I get an F. I have never met an American who writes Chinese. Could you help me with my English?" Tien had come to this country only five months earlier. He had no interest in learning English. He thought it was too hard to learn, and he also found it embarrassing to speak a foreign tongue in front of his peers. To help his pen pal, however, Tien became the hardest worker in his English-as-a-second-language class. He even went to a school tutorial center to learn more.
Stories like Tien's were common among our students. Because most of their Chinese pen pals expected them to be good English tutors, they became highly motivated to learn.
One chilly winter day, the classroom was as warm as it is in the spring. Twenty pairs of eyes stared nervously at the computer screen. We logged on to a private "Chinese chat room" in America Online. "Here they are!" someone yelled excitedly. One, two, three screen names popped up in the upper-right corner box. Wen, our fastest Chinese typist, quickly wrote two Chinese characters on the digitized writing pad:
el199611 fang p29a
Translation: "How are you!"
In response, these characters appeared from one of the screen names:
el199611 fang p29b
Translation: "How are you! Pen pals from Horace Mann?"
"Yes!!" the students cheered. Yes, we succeeded! We became the first students ever to conduct a live chat in Chinese through America Online.
The Information Superhighway in Chinese project drew wide attention. The world's largest Chinese newspapers, Sing Tao Daily and World Journal, reported our story several times. Many companies, universities, and agencies contacted us for information on how to realize telecommunication in Chinese. America Online chief executive officer Steve Case honored us in one of his e-mail messages for our "dedication and commitment in realization of Chinese online." And the president and chief executive officer of a trading company in Hong Kong thanked us in one of his e-mail messages "for preparing future business partners for us. I see the future of global communication from your project."

Witnessing a Transformation

By the end of the year, my students not only participated fully in all academic activities in their primary language, but also made tremendous progress in learning English. Their achievement was reflected in both their Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills scores and the grades on their report cards.
Our project is now in its third year. As we obtain more funding from the San Francisco Education Fund, we are able to expand it to more schools. Working with more students, we are publishing the first online student newspaper in Chinese—one of nine global electronic newspapers in Chinese. Each day, 1,102 people download our newspaper from three newsgroups. We are also maintaining the world's first student Web site in both English and two different coded Chinese characters (http://user.aol.com/ishchinese/ishmpage.htm).
Students have started to branch out from their foundation in e-mailing in Chinese to live conferences and some specialized areas, such as news reporting, researching, interviewing, editing, desktop publishing, and such recent Internet developments as Chinese HTML (hypertext markup language) and Web authoring.
Above all, the students no longer feel academically inferior as a result of not being proficient in English. Our project has restored their self-esteem, which in turn has helped them master English faster while further developing their primary language skills. They are opening their minds by communicating with other Chinese-speaking people around the world. And they're coming to realize what a gift it is to be truly bilingual and bicultural.

Fan Fang has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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