The Caesar Rodney School District has added a first-year Chinese language class to its curriculum, with 33 students now learning the language and culture of the world's second largest economy.

Forty years ago, local schools taught only “classic” languages: French, Latin and Spanish. At the time, starting a Chinese language class, especially when the United States didn’t even recognize the government of the People’s Republic of China, was unthinkable.

But it’s a changing world, and Caesar Rodney High School is keeping up with the times.

For 2010-2011, the school kicked off a new addition to its World Language curriculum, a Chinese class that, after the Appoquinimink School District, is only the second in the state.

The course of study, which includes 33 students, is taught by Eva Sun, 25, a native of the east coast metropolis of Shanghai.

She came to CR after teaching at Shanghai Community International School and after a year at Milton Elementary School.

It was an interest in America and Americans that led Sun to her teaching career.

“In China, children begin learning English in the third grade,” she said. “I came to America because I wanted to use English and to see the country where they really speak the language.”

“I was very curious about America, but I never thought I’d have the chance to live here.”

An only child — because of population pressures, couples in China only are permitted one offspring — Sun grew up in what she describes as a middle-class family. She was successful enough in school to enter Shanghai University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Chinese language literature.

It was while at the International School she earned a chance to visit the United States by getting a six-month position at an icon of American culture, Disney World. And it was there at the Magic Kingdom she met her husband, Nathan Bunch, who followed her back to China when the job ended. It took more than two years to complete the necessary paperwork, but the couple arrived in Delaware in 2009, where Sun taught elementary Chinese to elementary school students in Milton.

In the meantime, the Caesar Rodney School District was looking to expand its world languages program.

“We have the traditional offerings, but by the federal government’s standards, there are critical areas we needed to address, and one of those was the Chinese language,” said Assistant Superintendent Dr. Lou Ann Carlson. CR conducted a survey to gauge interest in expanding the language curriculum, and found students, parents and the community receptive to the idea, she said.

“This is really a huge step, and I’m proud of the work the high school is doing to look at ways to meet the needs of our students.”

Sun now has 33 students who are learning Mandarin Chinese, the official language of a nation that literally has hundreds of dialects spoken by its 1.2 billion inhabitants.

It’s not that difficult

A sampling from Sun’s fifth-period class showed a definite interest in both the Chinese language and its culture.

“It’s something new and exciting,” said junior Stephanie Wood, who has already completed two years of Spanish. “It’s more interesting to me than learning to speak Spanish. And it’s not something people would normally take.”

“I wanted to learn more about the culture of China,” noted freshman Valaree Conner, who also is learning to speak Korean. Knowledge of Chinese will come in handy as many Koreans also speak Chinese, she said.

And as far as learning how to read Chinese? That was something sophomore Victoria Hale, who also had taken Spanish in high school, really looks forward to.

“I see it as a challenge,” she said. “The Chinese characters are so much different than the English alphabet.”

Sun uses a standard Chinese/English textbook and regularly drills her students in not only recognizing and learning the words, but in identifying its complex characters. Unlike in English, each symbol actually is a full word and is drawn in a way that represents an object or idea.

“Some people think learning to read Chinese is hard, but it’s not,” she said. “[The students] relate the character to the object. I always keep them focused on a way to use the picture to find the meaning of a word.”

Life in the USA

As much as Sun is enjoying her life in America — she and Bunch just welcomed their first child, Leo, in July — she does get a little homesick.

“I do miss the food and my family and my friends, of course,” she said.

Americans also are much more polite when it comes to waiting in lines and driving because the streets are not crowded with people on foot, she said.

Sun also finds many American foods too sweet for her tastes, and having salads with a meal is almost unheard of.

“And a lot of foods we eat sound gross to Americans, like chicken feet. But I love chicken feet. Just like I love raw fish.”

Although its only five weeks into the new school year, Sun already is working on a curriculum for a second year of classes.

“As this year goes on, I think we’ll see more and more interest,” Carlson said. “This is a different opportunity and I think it will engage a lot of students and a lot of parents.”

Sun also hopes people feel a need to learn her native tongue. In a world where China is recognized as having the world’s second largest economy, a working knowledge of the language could be essential.

“I want there to be more and more students interested in learning it,” she said. “I hope these students continue to take Chinese in college and to use it to develop their careers.”

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