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In Utah, passion to study Chinese undimmed amid coronavirus crisis

By Zhao Xu in New York | China Daily | Updated: 2020-04-23 10:27
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Students at Cascade Elementary School in Orem, Utah, in the United States, show a poster they made in February to support China's fight against the COVID-19 epidemic. [Photo/Xinhua]

Despite the ongoing coronavirus crisis and the tension surrounding the Sino-US relationship, students and their parents in Utah are showing an interest in studying the Chinese language and culture, said Howard Stephenson, a former Utah senator.

"Lingo Bus, a Chinese education company specialized in e-learning, has made a very generous donation of their Chinese language-learning platform and resources to Utah students, to aid them while they are being educated online at home," he said. "It came in mid-March, when it became clear that Utah schools were closing and would remain closed for at least several weeks."

Twelve years ago, when the Dual Language Immersion Program started in Utah schools, Stephenson was one of those who pushed for the inclusion of Chinese in the program, alongside French, German, Russian, Portuguese and Spanish. Participating students receive half of their instruction in English, and the other half in their chosen language on a daily basis for 12 years, beginning from primary school and continuing until they finish high school.

"We had our first graduates a year ago. And our second cohort of graduates will soon leave high school, each one very fluent in one of the six languages," said Stephenson. "While Spanish is very prominent in our hemisphere and is still the No 1 enrollment in the program, Chinese is the second highest in enrollment and the most requested language by parents, even though our connections to China are separated by the Pacific Ocean."

According to Stephenson, a couple of high schools in Utah will adopt the immersion program this fall, and the focus will be on Chinese. "At the same time, the Chinese-language program will also be introduced in three Utah elementary schools that don't have it now. Since things have been moved online, these openings will not be affected by the current situation," he said.

15,000 students

Currently, across Utah, about 15,000 students from 76 schools are studying the Chinese language and culture through the immersion program. And Stephenson is seeing a steady rise in that number.

"These days, more parents are clamoring for their children to study Chinese. So as each cohort moves up one grade at the end of a school year, we'll have more new participants than we had the previous year. It's like a pyramid with a continuously expanding base," he said. "I believe that we can easily have 30,000 to 40,000 students enrolled within the next decade."

Dan Stephenson, Howard's son, has followed in his father's footsteps in getting himself involved with state politics and in pushing for bilateral exchanges between China and the US. He pointed to one of the goals of implementing a dual-language immersion program.

"Immersion students are more aware of and show more positive attitudes toward other cultures, and an appreciation for other people," he wrote on the Utah State Board of Education website.

The younger Stephenson believes that the increased cultural sensitivity made students empathetic toward the suffering of Chinese people when the country was convulsed by COVID-19.

"When the crisis was at its peak in China, some Utah school kids wrote messages in Chinese and sent them to Wuhan," he said, referring to the city in Central China's Hubei province that had suffered the most among all Chinese cities in the crisis.

Previously, the students had watched a music video featuring Chinese doctors and nurses, in their Chinese-language class.

One of the earliest Utah schools to offer the study of Chinese in a dual-language immersion program, Cascade Elementary, now has around 370 students participating in the program, half the school's enrollment.

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