Chinese language catching on in US classrooms
Updated: 2006-01-02 17:00
Twenty-four young faces in the kindergarten class at Woodstock Elementary
School watch intently as their teacher holds up a construction paper cut-out of
a large red circle, and waits for them to identify the shape.
Piece of cake for a roomful of savvy 5-year-olds, except that teacher Shin
Yen is looking for the shape's name in Mandarin Chinese. It's the world's most
widely-spoken language, but one that's only just beginning to surface in U.S.
classrooms, especially at the elementary level.
"Yuan", her students chant, without missing a beat.
A triangle comes next, and they call out, "San-Jiao." Then a square _
"Zheng-fangxing" _ and so on down the line.
The Woodstock class is on the front lines of a U.S. government-backed effort
to get more students learning Mandarin, a nod to China's emergence as a global
superpower of the unfolding century.
So far, the number of students nationwide who take Mandarin is minuscule _
about 24,000, most of them in high school. That compares with the 3 million or
so who study Spanish, the most popular language in the nation's schools, with
French and German next.
But a number of urban school districts have launched Mandarin programs,
including Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston and Boston.
High schools across the country were asked by The College Board's world
language initiative whether they'd consider adding Advanced Placement courses in
Italian, Russian, Japanese and Chinese _ and the organization was amazed at the
results, said Tom Matts, initiative director.
Fifty schools in the 2003 survey said they'd offer the Russian option, about
175 said Japanese and 240 Italian.
"And for Chinese, it was 2,400, 10 times the number of any of the other
three," Matts said. "We had no idea there was such an incredible interest out
there. Of all the new AP courses, certainly Chinese shows the most promise for
In the U.S. Senate, the Foreign Relations Committee is considering a proposal
to allocate $1.3 billion (euro1.1 billion) to boost Chinese language and culture
classes in public school, and China, too, is doing its part, said Michael
Levine, education director at The Asia Society in New York City. China's
education ministry has formed partnerships with states including Kentucky and
Kansas, as well as the countries of Brazil, Australia and the United Kingdom, to
boost teacher exchanges and training.
The Oregon program, though, is the first in the country to track students
from kindergarten to college. The school district and the University of Oregon
won a $700,000 (euro593,370) grant from the Defense Department for the program
The idea is for students to move from the Portland school system to the
university, where scholarships will be offered to students who will take a
standard college curriculum taught largely in Chinese. Students can also opt to
spend their junior year abroad, studying at Nanjing University in China.
The goal, organizers say, is for the program to be a model that other schools
and universities can duplicate, and for students to emerge ready for the
workforce, with a native fluency in Chinese.
Eight years ago, when the Woodstock program began, the majority of students
were of Asian descent, Woodstock principal Mary Patterson said, many of them
adopted daughters whose parents wanted them to feel some kind of connection to
their native country. Now the program is increasingly mixed ethnically, she
said; for the first time this year, the program had a waiting list, and
interested parents had to be turned away.
It's long been accepted that the younger a child is, the easier it is to
introduce them to a second language, said Patterson.
In September, most of Yen's 24 students couldn't speak a single word of
Mandarin, one of the most difficult languages to learn. But three months later,
the students were singing songs in Mandarin, laboriously printing Chinese
characters and following Yen's instructions, delivered in Mandarin, with no need
for any English translation, jumping up to impersonate trees, mountains and
frogs at her command.
Teaching begins slowly, Yen said, with repetition of about 20 to 25 Chinese
characters, since Mandarin has no alphabet, just 3,500 base characters that are
then combined to form other words. Each year, students learn about 150
characters, she said, via constant repetition and memorization.
By the time they get to fourth grade, students are relatively fluent; Lily
Rappaport, 9, said she sometimes dreams in Mandarin, after five years in the
program. Being in the program has its disadvantages, she said; her parents can't
be much help with her homework, for one.
"I am the only one in my family who really speaks it," she said. "I have to
figure it out by myself."
In the higher grade levels, students at Woodstock take not just
language-learning classes but also math and science courses that are taught in
In Jessica Bucknam's fourth-grade math class, students answer her questions
on graphing and remainders in easy, practiced Chinese. She mixes in some
language learning with the math as well, asking students whether a wrong answer
needs a smiley face or a frown next to it and waiting for their answer in
Yen and Bucknam are both native Mandarin speakers, but finding teachers for
the program is among the greatest challenges, Patterson said.
Where to find the teachers to meet the increasing demand for Chinese classes
is the "$64,000 question," said Levine, of the Asia Society.
Education officials should try for more teacher exchanges with China, he
said, and consider alternative certification programs for some of the many
Chinese speakers who live in the United States but are not licensed as teachers.
Distance learning could also help bring Chinese language courses to students in
more rural school districts, he said, and teacher preparation programs at
universities could also ramp up efforts to train language educators.
"There are great big multiples of kids who are studying the European
languages, but when we think about our economy, and the new markets we are
expanding into, it is time to recalibrate some of our attention," Levine