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Chinese culture at head of class

Published: Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013 6:15 a.m. CDT
In this Dec. 1, 2013 photo, Ellie Caifeng Diggins, 9, of Normal, practices writing in Chinese at the Chinese School at Heartland Community College in Normal. The language and culture classes for young people and their parents focuses on communication skills including listening and speaking Mandarin. Diggins started in the classes when she was 6. (AP Photo/The Pantagraph, Kevin Barlow)

NORMAL (AP) — As a parent of an adopted 9-year old Chinese girl, Aleda Diggins of Normal knows that there are only a handful of cultural opportunities directly linked to China for her daughter, Ellie. So when she heard about the language and culture classes for children at Heartland Community College, she quickly enrolled her.

"We started her in the classes when she was 6 because we wanted her to retain and remember the sounds of the Chinese language," Aleda Diggins said. "My husband and I don't speak Chinese, except for a couple of words, and we felt it was important to get more exposure to the language and culture."

Established in 1999, the Chinese School primarily consists of a series of Chinese language and culture classes for young people and their parents," said Ruifang Cao, who oversees the program.

"Classes focus on learning to speak, write and comprehend the Chinese language, which can be difficult to pick up if you aren't exposed to it on a regular basis," she said.

The school serves children from kindergarten through their senior year in high school. Classes are held for 14 consecutive weeks, with two semesters each year. The school averages more than 35 students each semester, she said.

Students include American-born children of Chinese parents, parents of mixed marriages, or children who have an interest in learning more about the Chinese language and culture.

"My kids are in the Chinese class and my family lives in Taiwan and they all speak Mandarin," said Yuluen Ma of Normal. "It's important for my kids to be able to communicate with them and it's nice that they are getting a full-rounded education including reading and writing so that when they grow up, hopefully they will be able to read Chinese newspapers."

Brett Douglas of Bloomington is married to a woman from China and they have a 7-year-old boy enrolled at the school.

"He has spoken Chinese in the house and has actually already been to China three times, so he speaks Chinese really well, but he learns how to write it here," he said. "If he can speak Chinese well and write Chinese well, he will be able to get along with most people."

The classes are divided into groups of five to seven students factoring in age and overall cultural experience.

"I can learn from them, too," said instructor Lixia Fan. "It is really interesting to learn about the different backgrounds from the students. Some of them have spent years in China and some have never been there."

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