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Yajuan Xiang has been on an extended journey that many Americans could never even imagine.

At age 18, she left Urumqi – the capital city of Xinjiang Province in northwest China, along the borders of Russia, Pakistan and Mongolia – and went to college in the Chinese capital city of Beijing.

Then, seven years ago, she got on a plane with about 20 other Chinese nationals and headed for the University at Buffalo to start a new chapter of her life, in a strange culture where few spoke her native Mandarin.

“I never thought what would actually scare me about living in a different country, not until I came to my first class and feel like I can’t understand half of the class,” said Xiang, 29, whose full name is pronounced Ya-Jrin Shung. “I started to cry right after the class.”

She discovered, as do many Americans, that taking a foreign language in junior high school “doesn’t prepare you for real life” in the country you studied in text books.

Since that first class, Xiang has helped bridge the cultural and linguistic divide between those from her home country and those in Buffalo. Her charges include 25 students, ages 21 months to 5 years old, at the UB Early Childhood Research Center, a learning lab for college students and teachers looking to become more effective in preschool and elementary school classrooms.

Roughly half the youngsters who come to research center are children of Chinese or Korean immigrants with ties to UB, said Kelly Ross Kantz Roy, its director. Xiang started using Mandarin informally with children here in 2008, the year after she arrived on campus. “She would speak to the kids in Chinese and it just became evident that they were learning English and Chinese and had virtually no accent in either – not that I could judge the Chinese,” Roy said.

Xiang soon expects to get her doctorate degree in early childhood education from the UB Graduate School of Education. After that, she will head to a tenure-track faculty post at the University of Southern Indiana, where she will teach students what she learned in Buffalo, and in her hometown 6,800 miles away.

How did the language teaching develop here at the research center?

I taught at a toddler group. That’s their first school experience. A lot of students come to the center without speaking any English. Hearing somebody speaking their native language is a huge help and a comfort to them. They adjusted better. American families found it really interesting that another language was being spoken, that stories and movies can be presented in a different language.

It sounds like you’re also incorporating culture.

This helps us connect with the families, too. Some immigrant families, it’s also their first school experience with their children. They’re trying to learn the American education system, so it’s good for them to be invited to our school. We’re inviting them to introduce pictures and read with the kids and dance with them. And we make dumplings or traditional foods, and cook with them, to let them feel more involved.

How are you finding the dynamic?

When we first started to read books in a different language for second-language learners, listening to English stories, they’re trying to receive the language and figure out content, so they tend to spend a longer time staying quiet. Their classmates are noticing this. If I start reading something in Mandarin, they are very responsive. That makes a huge difference. The children will look at each other, ‘Wow, you can communicate in a different language!’ That’s something cool. Half the students in the classroom who share Mandarin as a common language, they start to talk to each other in their native language. American students find, ‘Oh, another language is being spoken,’ so this becomes a new stimuli to them. We’re trying to foster an atmosphere in that your identity is very much welcomed in the classroom, no matter if you speak Japanese or Mandarin or Spanish or anything.

You’ve done research for your dissertation with 43 Western New York cross-national families from 18 different countries. What have you discovered?

Previous research attempted to portray a negative image, the problems they face because of cultural differences. Especially when raising children, you need constant agreement on things, so that actually presents more difficulties. But what I found out is differences are not always a problem. Sometimes, there are advantages. They actually view their marriages as very strong and view their parenting experiences as more rich, and learning opportunities. They want to have multi-heritage from both sides. This is actually giving us information that in today’s educational world, we need to incorporate a multicultural education in school because there’s more and more children like this, not only from mixed marriages but from immigrant families. We tend to be living more closely together, and we have to acknowledge the fact of a more diverse culture in school settings. How can teachers help children? It’s a very important thing.

email: refresh@buffnews.com

On the Web: Read more about Yajuan Xiang’s culture shock when she arrived in Buffalo at blogs.buffalonews.com/refresh