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Bilingual vs. Bicultural Education

There are many K-8 English and Chinese bilingual day schools in and around San Francisco and elsewhere in the United States. There is only ONE K-8 American and Chinese bicultural day school in the United States: the Bertrand D Hsu American & Chinese Bicultural Academy (a.k.a. Bert Hsu Academy or BHA).

What’s the difference between bilingual and bicultural education?

Language of Instruction

Chinese bilingual schools focus on teaching the Chinese language, often with “immersion” style. San Francisco has several of these schools and programs, both public and private, some teach Mandarin while others teach Cantonese, and some teach traditional characters while others teach simplified characters. These schools usually teach every class in Chinese in kindergarten and try to use Chinese language during out of class time too. They gradually reduce Chinese instruction to 50% by 5th grade, and the remaining 50% of instruction is taught in English. Then starting in 6th grade, the majority of instruction is in English while there continues to be Chinese class each day.

At Bert Hsu Bicultural Academy, instruction is in English except for the daily Chinese class. However, we do adjust our language of instruction depending on students’ needs. For example, some of our students start kindergarten speaking only Chinese, in which case we use Chinese for instruction (like math) and gradually convert them to English except in daily Chinese class. In other cases, our older students are fluent in English but know zero Chinese, so in Chinese class we use some English to teach them Chinese.

Chinese Culture Content

Teaching of the Chinese language at bilingual schools does expose their students to some Chinese culture. However, the cultural content typically stays at the holiday and food level. This is because learning culture in the Chinese language requires the students to learn a lot of Chinese characters (2500+), and that is very time consuming. Students still have to spend time learning English and other subjects.

At Bert Hsu Academy bicultural school, we teach Chinese culture in English. Every student takes a Chinese Culture class that includes topics such as: Chinese history and dynasties, Confucianism, art and music, classical literature, martial arts, architecture and folklore. Students take this class every year with the content being age-appropriate and becoming more in-depth as the student matures. Learning Chinese culture is not language dependent.

In addition to learning Chinese culture in class, BHA imbeds Chinese culture into our daily school life. We have daily morning exercise, a common practice in China. Lunch at BHA consists of Chinese/Asian food Monday through Wednesday (sandwich Thursday, and western Friday). Students clean their own dishes after their meal. Each day after lunch, we have Chinese Cultural Gem time when we introduce a Chinese idiom, one of those 4-character sayings that convey a story or moral that makes up the fabric of Chinese culture. Every Friday, students clean their own classrooms, and then all students clean the entire school along with teachers and administrators.

Student Population

Chinese bilingual schools typically attract parents and enroll students who don’t speak Chinese at home. That’s why the school creates an environment where students can be “immersed” in Chinese from kindergarten age (or younger) when they can pick up the language easily. These schools typically only take in students at the kindergarten level or younger, so that as students progress through the later grades, their Chinese language skills progress together at a similar pace and level. It is very hard to transfer into these schools at grades above kindergarten or first grade unless a student already has that level of Chinese proficiency. For those students who are already fluent in Chinese and attend a Chinese bilingual immersion school, a concern has been raised that their English language development may suffer.

BHA bicultural academy has attracted Chinese/Asian students so far with immigrant parents and bilingual parents who want their children to learn about Chinese culture. Many of our students speak Cantonese at home with their parents and grandparents, but don’t know much about Chinese culture beyond holidays and food. At BHA, students learn to speak Mandarin as well as read and write simplified characters, sometimes at kindergarten level even though they are in middle school by age. We also have students whose parents don’t speak Mandarin and would like their students to learn Mandarin and Chinese culture. We take K-8 transfer students at any grade and with any Mandarin proficiency and teach them from there. Our focus on teaching Chinese culture in English and our ability to take students with varying degrees of Mandarin proficiency does not limit any student from attending BHA.

What Parents Really Want for Their Children

Many parents, especially ethnic Chinese parents, equate being bilingual with being bicultural. They think that by learning the Chinese language, their children will feel connected to Chinese culture. This is certainly true to an extent, but not to the extent that many of these parents hope.  

Students who learn Chinese sufficiently well in bilingual schools get to a proficiency level where they can travel in China and converse with locals relatively easily. Not many use their language skills beyond that. Many of the students who are forced to go to weekend or after school Chinese schools end up hating the experience and some hating the Chinese language. Most of these students also do not use Chinese except to occasionally speak with grandparents or get an easy A in Chinese language class in high school or college.

What many parents miss is that just knowing the language does not mean knowing or appreciating Chinese culture. If parents want their children to understand their Chinese heritage, learning about Chinese culture (in English) is more effective, and can be motivation to learn the language.

Bilingual schools focus on teaching language. Bicultural schools focus on teaching culture, and along with that, language. BHA is a bicultural school that teaches Chinese culture and language, similar to Jewish, Catholic, French, Italian, Armenian and other cultural schools. Our students learn to appreciate Chinese culture whether they are ethnic Chinese or not.  For ethnic Chinese students who were born or immigrated at a young age to America, they learn about their cultural roots and feel more comfortable and grounded in our multicultural American society.

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