- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2005

For Karen and Christy Li, two sisters whose family migrated from China to Wheaton in March, walking into their new school was like jumping into the deep end of a pool full of unique American customs, language and culture.

Fortunately, the sisters found a lifeguard in Kristina Li.

Kristina, one of Karen’s fellow fifth-graders at Oakland Terrace Elementary School, is the U.S.-born daughter of Chinese immigrants and speaks fluent Cantonese, the same dialect that Karen and Christy speak.

She is not related to the Li sisters, but she took it upon herself to help ease the girls’ immersion into American life.

“It’s sort of like teaching a baby, because they don’t really know anything about the new land, and they’re sort of exploring everything, and it’s fun,” said Kristina, 10, who said she learned Cantonese by watching Chinese movies with her mother.

Montgomery County began keeping track of English as a second language (ESL) students in 1981. Since 1986, the number of students whose primary language is not English has increased every year.

During the 1981-82 school year, 3,349 students were in ESL classes. This year, that number is 13,025.

School officials say the district is working hard to address the needs of its ESL population, but these students are finding guidance from others who speak their language.

“It’s common to see kids translate for others,” said Oakland Terrace art teacher Barbara Leckie. “Kristina seems to have relished the task of translation.”

Karen and Christy’s parents farmed and washed dishes in restaurants in the Kwong Tung province of China before following relatives to the United States in hopes of acquiring a slice of the American dream for their children.

“We are looking at the future,” the girls’ mother, Xin Nu Li, said through an interpreter. “I hope that my kids work hard all the way and finally go to college.”

Mrs. Li, 40, has found a job at a Red Roof Inn. Her husband is working at a Chinese restaurant. They have their green cards, a relative said.

“The work is easier and the money is better” than in China, Mrs. Li said.

Karen and her third-grader sister, Christy, begin each school day in Synthia Woodcock-Dang’s ESL class. Mrs. Woodcock-Dang, a 30-year teaching veteran, was the county’s ESL teacher of the year in 2002.

The native languages of her students include Amharic, Arabic, Tigrinya from Eritrea, Tagalog from the Philippines, Indonesian and Spanish.

Learning English is difficult for Chinese speakers, Mrs. Woodcock-Dang said, because they are used to monosyllabic words. She has to teach the girls how to make new sounds. Plus, English is “a mix of different languages. … It’s not very consistent,” she said.

For Karen and Christy, “the English language has no pattern,” Kristina said. “They’re sort of wowed by it. … It sounds so different.”

Mrs. Woodcock-Dang is trying to enroll Karen and Christy in summer language sessions, but said their brief class time at the end of the school year will be invaluable.

Plenty of cultural differences can be learned without language.

When Mrs. Pulliam announced a Code Red drill and the school went into a lockdown, Mrs. Leckie turned out the lights and drew the shades. The children dove under their art tables with squeals and laughs.

Karen, reed-thin with long black hair, stood up straight and looked around the room. Although she did not seem afraid, she had no idea what was happening. Kristina helped Karen duck under the table, where other girls played with her hands.

When the drill ended, Karen returned to her drawings of three pictures: one of her old house in China, which looked like a brick tenement, one of a plane flying her to the United States, and a third drawing of a new house, complete with a yard and trees.

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