Campus & Community

Speaking the same language

3 min read
Jackie Yuen and Zhu Hang
Freshman Jackie Yuen works with Zhu Hang Jiang, 73 (above and below right). Yuen is one of the Harvard students who visit elderly residents at the South Cove Plaza in Boston's Chinatown each Saturday morning to provide English lessons and companionship. (Staff photos by Kris Snibbe)
Jackie Yuen and Zhu Hang
Jackie Yuen and Zhu Hang Jiang

In the communal living room at Boston’s South Cove Plaza Saturday, under the quiet swirl of twin paddle fans, words from two languages – rapid-fire Chinese and slow, careful English – mingled in the room’s slowly stirring air.

The speakers, Harvard students and several of the building’s elderly Chinese residents, hunched in small groups at tables and sofas. Each group worked independently, slowly pronouncing an English word or sound, repeating it, and sometimes adding an explanation or commentary in Chinese.

“My English isn’t very good. I need help,” confessed Rupi He, who came to the United States eight years ago from Guangzhou, one of China’s largest cities.

Rupi He said she has studied English off and on, but never really learned it well. Now, she is working with children and needs to improve her ability to understand and speak the language.

Helping He with her lessons is Vince Chu, a Harvard sophomore and co-director of the Chinatown Elderly Visitation Program, a student community service organization operated under the Phillips Brooks House Association.

Chu, whose parents came to the United States from Guangzhou in the early 1970s, said he enjoys working with new immigrants. Chu speaks the Cantonese dialect and keeps his Chinese fluent through conversations with his parents. Though his physics and mathematics concentration may not lead to a career in social service, he expects he’ll always work to help others in some way.

“I suppose I will always be a volunteer in some sort of capacity,” Chu said.

Chu was one of six Harvard students who went to South Cove Plaza in Boston’s Chinatown Saturday. The students visit the complex’s elderly Chinese residents for an hour each Saturday morning. The students are studying diverse subjects, but all share an interest in using their Chinese language skills to help others.

It isn’t a one-way street, however.

Chu’s co-director, Sarah Tammy Tsang, a social studies concentrator who grew up in Toronto, said the elderly help her as much as she helps them. The lessons, she said, give her a chance to practice Chinese, which is her first language but which she had forgotten after many years of speaking English.

“I lost my Cantonese,” Tsang said. “I’ve always wanted to improve it so I could speak with my grandparents because they speak only Cantonese.”

Though teaching English is the purpose of the program, it isn’t the only goal. In addition to teaching language skills, the students also provide companionship.

“The purpose of the program is to teach the elderly English,” Tsang said. “But the teaching is just a way to hang out with them, get to know them.”

Sarah Tsang and Shisi
Sarah Tsang '02 goes for a stroll with Shisi Wang, 75. (Staff photo by Kris Snibbe)