Throughout the week, William L. Harkness Hall bustles with the sounds of Yalies engaging in lectures and seminars, with topics ranging from nuclear politics to Portuguese. But once a week, a different kind of learning takes place, with a decidedly different group of students.
Every Sunday morning, WLH hosts the New Haven Chinese Language School, a community-based school that teaches Chinese to students ranging in age from pre-K through high school. Although the initiative has existed for over 30 years, NHCLS has recently begun to revitalize its relationship with the Chinese community at Yale.
The school was founded in 1980 by a Yale professor, Tso-Ping Ma GRD ’74, and his wife. The couple needed a place for their children to learn Chinese, said Miaolin Zhou, one of the school’s co-administrators. But the school is now largely unrelated to the University, with Yale acting more as a landlord than a partner, she added.
“We’d love to see more involvement,” Zhou said. “But of course we know that Yale students are all very busy.”
However, the Yale community remains involved with NHCLS. The Chinese American Students Association, for example, has historically maintained a “vibrant” relationship with the school, said Lely Evans, the school’s other co-administrator.
Stone, who is director of education at the private, nonprofit Yale-China Association, added that there is a thriving unofficial relationship between her association and NHCLS as well. Members attend each other’s events and act as resources for each other.
“It’s good to bring [Yale’s involvement] back,” said Shwu-Huey Liu, a longtime parent of NHCLS students. “As Chinese people, we’d like to see our culture continue for the next generation, and this school is a great way to do it.”
While CASA was very active in its relationship with NHCLS some years ago, that exchange has faded in recent years, Zhou said. Five or six years ago, CASA members went to classrooms to speak to the high school students about applying to college and formed a “big brother, big sister” relationship with NHCLS students, she said, but CASA is no longer as regularly engaged as it was in the past.
In the last two years or so, she added, CASA has made an effort to revamp its relationship with NHCLS. Last year, several CASA members came into the school during the Mid-Autumn Festival, a traditional Chinese holiday, to perform a skit for the kids, she said. They have also made appearances during other special events, such as NHCLS’s culture workshops involving food preparation and arts and crafts, Evans added.
“The kids love it,” Evans said. “We’re encouraging CASA members to actually develop a relationship with our children, because our children can really benefit from seeing other Chinese-American role models.”
In keeping with its effort to reestablish more regular interactions, CASA sent out an email at the beginning of the school year announcing that the NHCLS was looking for student volunteers to aid in its classrooms. Joyce Wang ’17, who had spent three years assisting at the local Chinese school in her hometown, was quick to respond. She attends the language classes every other week, helping teachers with demonstrations and activities.
While not many Yale students know about the school, Wang said, she thinks that if there were greater awareness, students would be interested in getting involved. She said she has noticed a lot of interest among Yale students in learning about Chinese culture because the Chinese department is so strong.
“I know a lot of people who are taking Chinese here who aren’t heritage speakers, and that’s really awesome,” Wang said. “I think there’s a lot of talent at Yale and a lot of interest.”
The teachers at NHCLS have noticed an increase in non-native interest in learning Chinese as well. While the student body used to be largely composed of children whose Chinese parents wanted them to keep up with their native language, in recent years, there has been an influx of students who are simply interested in learning for the sake of learning.
In fact, the enrollment of students who do not speak Chinese at home has increased so much that the school now holds a separate class for non-heritage speakers.
“They were so accomodating to us,” said Leslie Stone, a non-native Chinese speaker whose children recently enrolled at NHCLS. “Their offering that class is really great. It adds a whole dimension, I think, that the language is not just an in-group kind of thing. It’s accessible to everyone.”
There are currently 47 students enrolled in NHCLS.