It’s not often these days that a news story makes me smile, but this one (by Yilu Zhao) did. Shuang Wen Academy is a school on the Lower East Side that teaches in both Mandarin Chinese and English; obviously it was created by and for Chinese. Yet ten percent of the students are black.

Although only two of the school’s first class of 45 students were not of Chinese descent, Shuang Wen gradually gained a reputation among some of the city’s black middle-class parents for being nurturing yet rigorous. In last spring’s citywide third-grade math and English tests, Shuang Wen ranked third in math and 23rd in English among the city’s almost 1,000 elementary schools.

Now, before the start of every school year, more and more black parents arrive at the office of the principal, Ling-Ling Chou, seeking admission for their children to the prekindergarten class — which is based on interviews with prospective students and their parents. They are undeterred by the fact that their children will be among the few non-Asians in the school, or that Mandarin is famously difficult to master. Chinese instruction runs from 3 to 5:30 p.m. daily. All subjects, however, are taught in both languages.

Shuang Wen is housed in a corner space in Public School 134, at East Broadway and Grand Street, and blacks are not the only non-Chinese among its 245 students. But the 23 black students are by far the largest non-Chinese group, outnumbering the 11 whites and 8 Hispanics.

As an alternative school, Shuang Wen admits students from all five boroughs, and many of the black children live an hour or more away. There are no school buses serving them, and parents have to drop off and pick up their children.

All right, the “famously difficult to master” is silly; no language is difficult to a child. But isn’t that a nice news item? In this age of ethnocentrism and mutual suspicion, it reminds us that people can still reach across barriers. And something tells me those kids are going to have a leg up on monoglots when they start looking for jobs.

It also reminds me of a story. It seems that Morrie hadn’t seen his friend Sol in a long time, so he dropped by Sol’s deli. When he went in, he was greeted by a Chinese shop clerk—with “Sholem aleikhem”! The clerk asked what he wanted and told him “Sol’s in the back,” all in flawless Yiddish. Morrie went through the door to the back room and said “Sol, it’s great to see you! But listen, how did you find a Chinese guy who speaks Yiddish?” Sol looked alarmed and said “Shh! He thinks we’re teaching him English.”


  1. Or perhaps, all languages are equally difficult for children? I think most adults who sat through 3 or 4 hours of solid Mandarin five days a week would get good too, and quite a bit faster, no?

  2. It’s well established that before a cutoff age that varies from person to person but is generally around 10 (as I recall) the language facility is on maximum, so to speak; children pick up languages with ease. After that, if a second language has not been learned the facility shuts down, and it becomes very difficult to learn a foreign language properly. So, to answer your final question, no.

  3. The thing that stuck out to me in this article was the fact that the black students are all of West Indian descent — there’s a real divide between American and West Indian blacks that is just hinted at here.

  4. I should add: in NYC. In Toronto, it’s a totally different story.

  5. Nelson: An enlightening comment — I confess I hadn’t noticed that. I don’t know if you’re aware of Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating New Yorker article on that subject; if not, I commend it to your attention (and anyone else’s who might be interested).

  6. Ah well Languagehat, it’s too late for us oldies then!

    I was learning French from 7 to 11, and when I was 11 joined a class at secondary school where half the students had never had a French lesson until that point. They all rapidly overtook me and by the end of that school year I was second bottom of the class, and the class was headed by several boys who had all started the language eight months earlier, not five years earlier.

    So I’m a bit suspicious of the Critical Period Hypothesis!

  7. I like the joke. It makes me think of my in-laws, immigrants from India who speak a code-switching mixture of Gujarati and strongly accented English at home. One year they took in a high school exchange student from Japan, who got an unexpectedly multicultural experience. My wife liked to chuckle imagining the conversation when he called home and said, “Mom and Dad, yes, I’m in Texas but I’m living with a bunch of *Indians*!” Fortunately he got plenty of English immersion at school and didn’t end up sounding like Peter Sellers in The Party.

  8. My 8 year old Child just came back from spending three years in China at a local school full time. We are black and our native language is English and are of West Indian descent. Because she only spent K and 1st grade in America her English reading and writing is weak. However, she can speak, read and write in Mandarin. The Shuang Wen school refused to accept my daughter in their school because they said they had no ESL resources to help her although they have mainland chinese children in the school. And, in 2001, the principal gave me a different impression and let my daughter visit two of their classes. This year, I was told me they could not help her because she would have to take test and would not be excempt from them although she did not go to school in the USA. The principal Ling-Ling was harsh with her during the interview and laughed at her with another teacher when she was asked to write a report in Engish. She gave my daughter no chance to attend the school, but simply said, “I don’t know how to help her.” I think that if she was Chinese she would have been accepted in the school and given her help. This school has a good reputation because they exclude children.

  9. I’m sorry to hear that. I hope you find a good school for her.

  10. John Cowan says

    While doing my due diligence for Dorian’s middle school last year, I visited the place and was underwhelmed.

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