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Chinese School Expands Program To Include Adults

A school in Terre Haute that teaches Chinese language and culture to children on Saturdays is expanding to include adults for the first time this year.

Chinese School

Photo: Claire McInerny

Curt Debaun's adopted daughter Pauline studies Mandarin at the Chinese school Debaun founded in Terre Haute.

The Chinese School of the Wabash Valley started classes when a group of parents in Terre Haute with adopted children noticed the lack of cultural learning opportunities.

The group has met every Saturday for six years to discuss customs and work on language skills, and the program is now expanding to teach adults as well.

Curt DeBaun adopted his first daughter from China in 2004, and after his second one came home in 2007 he wanted his girls to have a connection to where they were born.

But Terre Haute didn’t have any opportunities to learn about Chinese culture, so DeBaun started a new school so his daughters and other children adopted from China could learn Chinese.

“We think they would have great opportunities down the road as adults if they could have the best of both worlds,” Debaun says. “They could have one foot in Asia and one foot in the United States and be able to work with both communities. I think that potential is fantastic for anybody to have.”

Soon the Chinese School of the Wabash Valley was instructing the children of Chinese immigrants to read and write in Chinese.

And now, the class includes children from a variety of backgrounds. No child interested in learning Chinese languages or culture is turned away.

“I was really fascinated with writing down all the Chinese symbols so then my mom said ‘why don’t you learn the real way to say it, there’s a Chinese School downtown,’” says Claire Willey, a student at the school.

Differences In Adult Versus Children Learning Styles

This year the school expanded its curriculum to another group of students—adults.

Rather than attracting students born in China, the adult class caters to people generally interested in Chinese, or those who grew up around the culture but don’t know the technical aspects of the language.

“I’ve definitely been more open to the culture rather than the speaking because my parents are Chinese so we experience the culture every day using chopsticks and cooking, it’s all cultural,” says 16-year-old Alyssa Qi. “But the speaking never really got through to me and so this is a very good privilege because I like to speak Chinese and I want to learn it so I can communicate with my parents better.”

Although many students at the Chinese School of the Wabash Valley were drawn to Chinese because of cultural interest or connection, many academics believe it is a useful skill for the current and future job market.

“As we can see China is growing as a national force or an economic force so it provides more opportunities for people in both countries, both continents,” says Henghua Su, Assistant Professor Chinese Linguistics at Indiana University. “Not just in working opportunities in China but also in the U.S. people will have more opportunities to interact with Chinese people to do business with them and to learn about their culture.”

Yi Chong teaches the five students in the adult class and says it’s very different from working with children. Kids pick up languages a lot more quickly, and most of the classes at the Chinese school use games and other interactive activities designed for kids.

With the adult class, Chong likes to share personal anecdotes about China as part of the lessons.

“Some of them went to China, been to China, so they will be ‘yea I know that!’ and they will bring a new topic so we can make a small discussion. Sometimes we get off subject but I think that is good for them to interact,” Chong says.

Although the Asian population in Terre Haute is less than one and a half percent of the population, many students in the program believe being more knowledgeable about a different culture will help the community as a whole.

For DeBaun, it’s more personal.

After founding the school for his girls, he’s become a student himself. He says learning Chinese has helped him connect to his daughters and given them a shared interest- even if it is difficult.

“”My great saying is that I will learn Chinese before I die. So I have a long way to go,” he says.

Claire McInerny

Claire McInerny is a reporter/producer for WFIU/WTIU news. She comes to WFIU/WTIU from KCUR in Kansas City. She graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Kansas where she discovered her passion for public media and the stories it tells. You can follow her on Twitter @ClaireMcInerny.

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