Chinese Language Blossoms in US Schools
By Belinda Yu
BROOKLINE, Mass — Professor Chang is about to bow to his class, signifying the end of a day’s lesson. He recites a short phrase in the Mandarin dialect of Chinese, and then adds: “What did I just say?”
“We…we…I…have no idea,” replies one of his students at Brookline High School in Massachusetts.
In a sign of China’s growing influence, the notoriously tongue-twisting Chinese language is now among the fastest-growing foreign languages studied in U.S. schools. The trend has been spurred by China’s growing global influence, and the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to the United States this week has highlighted booming trade ties.
Marty Abbot, director of education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, estimates about 50,000 students in grades 7-12 are studying Chinese in U.S. state and private schools, up from just 5,000 students in 2000.
“Nobody had any idea that this boom was going to happen so quickly,” said Abbot.
China’s hectic economic growth has spurred demand in business and government agencies for Mandarin language speakers. And America’s interest in all things Chinese — a language spoken by more than 1.4 billion worldwide — shows little sign of slowing.
In the greater Boston area, the number of secondary schools offering Chinese has climbed to 8 from one since 1983, said Lin Yu-Lan, director of Boston’s world languages program. Four Boston schools added Chinese programs this year alone.
Foreign language studies still remain overwhelmingly Eurocentric in the United States. About 87 percent of high school students study either Spanish or French, according to a recent U.S. Department of Education report. German is the third-most popular followed by Latin.
Abbot said the allure of the world’s most widely spoken language is simple: Few people are mastering it in the United States. Those who do could have an important competitive advantage as China emerges as a global superpower.
“We don’t have enough Chinese speakers in government positions,” said Abbot. “It’s a serious concern.”
The U.S. government is paying attention, allocating $1.3 billion over six years to Chinese language programs under the U.S.-China Cultural Engagement Act, which if passed by Congress will also create cultural exchange programs and bolster the teaching of Chinese at home and abroad.
TEACHERS, BOOKS NEEDED
The nonprofit College Board, which administers advanced placement exams, will include Chinese in its battery of tests — its first East Asian language — from May 2007.
The College Board’s 2004 survey found 2,400 of 14,000 high schools were interested in teaching Chinese. “We were so surprised that in fact we were skeptical,” said the director of the advanced placement program, Thomas Matts.
“We were not ready at all for the volume of schools that said they were interested in offering Chinese,” he added.
Many schools lack teachers skilled in the language and materials needed to teach it, according to the New York-based Asia Society. But 25 states nationwide have licensed teachers for Chinese language instruction, the society said.
Officials in Taiwan and China are also eager to help.
The Taiwan Ministry of Education donated $300,000 toward developing curriculum and training teachers for the College Board’s Chinese program in May 2005. Matts said China contributed more than double that amount.
“Chinese culture does not only belong to the Chinese,” said Chang Shan-nan at the Taipei Economics and Cultural Offices in Boston. “It’s very important to promote Chinese to the world.”
Back at Brookline High, Chang looks across his classroom.
“Chinese is a tonal language; you cannot just memorize words,” Chang tells his teen-age students. “You have to know the meaning of each word in its proper context; otherwise, the word for ‘rabbit’ becomes the word for ‘bald’… how awful!”
Chang’s students cited a variety of reasons for learning Chinese, from the personal to the pragmatic. Six of 20 students are Asian, like Matt Lin and Andrew Yeung, both 15, who are learning Mandarin to speak with their families.
Dori Samet, a 15-year-old from Israel, said: “If I were to start my own business, China would obviously be a good place to be in.”
Alex Koziakov, 14, already speaks fluent Russian and ponders life as a diplomat: “If you want to be a diplomat, it’s pretty useful.”