Mary Jew is the head of primary school for Keystone Academy. She moved from Hong Kong to San Francisco when she was in primary school, suddenly becoming immersed in a bilingual English and Chinese environment. At home, Jew spoke two dialects: Cantonese and Taishangnese. The following interview about bilingual education originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of our Chinese-language sister magazine, jingkids.
How old were you when you started in a bilingual environment?
Nine or 10 years old. There weren’t any ESOL or bilingual programs, so it was sink or swim. I was a high achiever in Hong Kong; when I went to the US, I didn’t understand anything and all my papers came back with bad marks. It was very discouraging. It’s not difficult for kids to learn languages; the difficult part was not being able to read or understand my teachers. I remember coming home crying all the time. I relied on a Chinese-English dictionary.
However, teachers saw the potential in me even though my English language ability wasn’t fully there. One of my counselors in middle school actually put me in the honors class – and that changed my track quite a bit.
I also started playing my first instrument in middle school. I guess I played horribly because my teacher never shared the following with me until I auditioned for the orchestra and got in. He said: “Mary, I thought you would never make it.” If he had said that to me at the beginning, I would never have continued playing the instrument.
What inspired you to become an educator?
In those years, all the teachers were non-Chinese. Chinese people weren’t welcome as teacher for the longest time; this is part of Chinese-American history. The majority of [Chinese] kids didn’t speak Chinese and they weren’t encouraged to. I continued to see new immigrants come into my classes and I saw how they were humiliated. By Grade 6, I was very determined to become a teacher so I could help these kids.
Many of them were placed into Special Ed just because they had a language barrier. Many of these kids were damaged by that because the “special needs” label never came off until they were in high school. By that time, their self-confidence was gone. That continued in the US for quite a while because they didn’t know what to do with these kids.
I was in the Spanish bilingual program. In college, they were recruiting for what was called “Teach Corp,” which is funded by the government – in other words, an internship for becoming a teacher. They paid for your Master’s degree and had you working in disadvantaged areas in exchange.
My internship was in a farming community where there were a lot of Spanish-speaking migrant workers. There were many applicants for the position; only 30 were selected. Out of the 30, only three were non-Hispanic. That turned out to be a really good experience for me. We were going to school, teaching part-time, and working with the community.
How would you describe a bilingual program?
There are many different definitions and types of programs. Bilingual models can be traditional, transitional, or partial-maintenance. The latter means that the students will maintain their mother tongue. There’s also one-way or two-way immersion, which is known as dual-language immersion.
An example of one-way immersion would be Canada. Everyone is fluent in English then learns French at school. Dual-language immersion is a mixture [of both languages]. Starting at middle school is too late; we’re advocating as early as possible.
Kids only have so much time. How can they learn two languages at the same time and achieve 100 percent fluency in both?
The time we spend in the classroom is more important than homework. Homework has to be meaningful and an extension of what students learn at school. If it becomes just busy work, it won’t yield [good]results.
I always tell parents that, because the kids are learning two languages, it’s not more homework, but [it can seem like more because]it’s homework that is being done in two languages. The teachers must coordinate and communicate with each other to ensure that homework will not overload the kids. For example, if the students are learning multiplication, they might use games in English class that use multiplication to support their learning.
I also tell parents to be supportive. If you are a native Chinese speaker, you are totally capable of supporting them with their Chinese classes. If you can’t help them in English, you can still supervise them to make sure they’re doing the work.
When kids get to middle school and high school, they’ll need to juggle other subjects such as science and history. Can bilingual education be sustained during this period?
If kids have developed a good base for their languages, they should be very strong by the time they finish middle school. However, they should not repeat the subject in two languages. That’s a waste of time.
In Texas, they really believe in bilingual and immersion programs. In primary, they may have Spanish and English bilingual education, then add Chinese as another language in middle school. You might end up with a Mexican kid who speaks perfect English, perfect Spanish, and perfect Chinese. Granted, there is always going to be one language that’s a little more dominant.
Based on research, it takes about seven years on average to learn a language [in an academic setting]. So you have to keep it up in middle school to really develop that. Can you imagine your child going through school 70 percent of the time in Chinese and all of sudden switching to all-English school? It’s not good for them.
When parents make the decision [to put their kids in bilingual education], they have to know that it’s a commitment they’ll have to make for a long time. At about Grade 4-5, the [second]language will come to a balance with the mother tongue.
What about different language levels in the same classroom?
You’re going to have that problem even in single-language schools. Regardless of whether it’s an immersion environment or not, the key is not approaching teaching as one-size-fits-all. In the US, we call it “Differentiated Instructions.”
Education for parents is just as important. We hold many workshops; if they get a better understanding [of their child’s education], then we can work as partners.
Define Keystone’s immersion program. What is the goal?
The expectation is that our students will leave Keystone with bilingual and bi-literate skills, as well as a very global perspective. I can’t all of a sudden become an engineer when I’m not trained in that area; similarly, you can’t just become a teacher because you speak the language.
So, we will be looking for teachers who have experience in both languages. They will come from different backgrounds, but we want everyone to have that professional learning. The latter is one of the pivotal factors for why students are successful. If you have good teachers that are also well-trained, you will have good results.
You also have to find a curriculum that fits your program. Textbooks won’t fit 100 percent. There’s a lot of teacher involvement and development, as well as materials that will fit that specific community and program model.
The results have come out from the US and Canada for the last 30-40 years: If bilingual and immersion programs are well-supported, the test results for those kids far surpass [unilingual]programs.
Mary Jew is the head of Keystone Academy’s primary school. She has over 25 years of experience working in the California public school system with Grades K-12. In addition to working for public school districts and county offices of education, Jew has served as a lecturer for San Francisco State University’s Department of Education.
Jew has established herself as a leader in the US in bilingual and immersion education by developing and managing numerous immersion programs in English as well as Cantonese, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin.
Jew is a graduate of the University of San Francisco and the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is a past president of the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) and the California Association for Asian Pacific Educators (CAAPE). She also served for many years on the Executive Board of the California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE) and the National Association for Asian Pacific Educators, and was formerly appointed by the Speaker of the House and served for four years as a Commissioner on the California State Curriculum and Supplemental Materials Commission.
Jew is currently the Deputy Principal of the Primary School and Director of the Immersion Program at the Independent Schools Foundation Academy in Hong Kong. At Keystone, she will be developing and overseeing the primary school curriculum and its related language immersion program.
Photo courtesy of Keystone Academy