Occasionally, I’ve encountered school district employees who know very little when it comes to communicating with the parents of their Asian students, even when they work with large numbers of them or are in positions of importance.
I must admit that I was clueless myself when I started working at a school which was nearly 26% Asian. Fortunately, I had a wonderful co-worker named Eva with whom I worked closely for seven years. We became good friends and she taught me a great deal about the basics of Chinese language and culture. At least now I am more knowledgeable about one subgroup within the entire Asian subgroup.
OUSD’s student body is 14% Asian. The majority of the kids are from Cantonese-speaking Chinese families. The second largest sub-subgroup is Vietnamese students, followed by Khmer (Cambodian) students, then Mien and Mandarin-speaking Chinese kids, even fewer Lao and Hmong kids, and then very small numbers of others.
Asians are a significant demographic group in
As proof of the lack of basic knowledge at high levels, I noticed errors in an important state report about OUSD which was released last November.¹
The report reads “In the past year, the district has hired additional student engagement and parent advisory specialists and parent liaisons, including Spanish, Chinese and Cambodian speakers, in an effort to enhance community and family involvement in district schools.”
It then goes on to say, “The district has continued to provide training and support to help parents elected to site and district councils understand their role and responsibilities. The handbooks for School Site Councils, the District Advisory Council, and the district and site English Learner Advisory Committees are provided in Spanish, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Mandarin and Cantonese.”
(If you didn’t notice any errors in the sentences above, then you should continue to read this entry.)
To start with, the phrase about “Chinese…speakers” in the first paragraph is somewhat ambiguous. Therefore, it serves as a useful departure point for explaining spoken Chinese and its variations.
Chinese is unlike many other languages because it has a very large number of distinct spoken forms. The spoken forms are so different from each other that linguists refer to them as linguistic groups rather than dialects.²
Dialects are language variations that are mostly understood by everyone who speaks that language. With English for instance, people from
However, the Chinese variations are so great that it is not possible for people from various regions to understand each other. A good analogy for the Chinese languages would be the Romance languages of
This is an important point for school district employees to know. When a teacher, or a principal, needs a “Chinese” interpreter for a parent meeting, they need to find a person who speaks the right kind of Chinese!
Cantonese happens to be the main Chinese language spoken by families in
Mandarin is the main language spoken in the People's Republic of
Incidentally, Mandarin-speaking immigrants from
For many years, Taishanese (a variation of Cantonese) was the most common Chinese language spoken throughout
The ethnic Chinese from
So although many of OUSD’s Asian English Learners report that they are Cantonese-speaking, there is often a great deal of linguistic versatility in their homes. Parents may not speak English fluently, but they may speak more than one Chinese language. It is also useful to know that many Chinese parents send their children to Chinese school every week to receive formal instruction about their language and other aspects of their culture.
This brings me to the error in the second paragraph.
It makes no sense for the report to state, “The handbooks… are provided in Spanish, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Mandarin and Cantonese.” This is because Mandarin and Cantonese are spoken languages, not written ones. It would be impossible to create a Mandarin handbook unless it was an audio version!
The written language of Chinese evolved more slowly than the spoken language. As a result, the written characters have remained nearly constant despite the variations that developed for the spoken words. It is useful to know that, although speakers of the different Chinese linguistic groups cannot understand each other verbally, they can completely communicate with each other in writing.
There are two main written forms of Chinese, traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese.
Traditional Chinese has been widely used for years among Chinese populations around the world and also in
Chinese is a very difficult written language to master. A person’s literacy is determined by the number of characters known, and the number of words known. For instance, a highly educated person may recognize as many as 4,000 to 5,000 characters, and 40,000 to 60,000 words.
Simplified Chinese was developed in mainland
Finally, I have one suggestion. One should be careful when using the terms “interpret” and “translate.” Interpret is an action relating to the verbal aspect of transforming the language. Translate refers to an action which is most often written. So if one is speaking properly, they would say that a Cantonese interpreter was used during a meeting, and that the handbooks were translated into Chinese.
Eventually I hope to provide you with a little basic information about the other non-Chinese Asian subgroups in
Please add any other information you know.
¹ This was the FCMAT report. FCMAT stands for Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team. This is the body of specialists working for the California Department of Education who have been evaluating OUSD’s progress toward stability. The excerpts are on page 16 of the report at http://boe-webextender.ousd.k12.ca.us/attachments/9074.pdf
² Just some of the other Chinese language groups are Hunanese, Pekingnese, Taiwanese, Ammoy, Folkenese, Fukienese, Shanghainese, Gansunese, Sichuanese, Hainanese, Yunnanese, and Jiangsunese. It is more information than you probably need to know, but it gives you an idea of the complexity of the Chinese language.
³ The first wave of Chinese immigrants in the