West Virginia: With a Changing World Comes An Urgency to Learn Chinese

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sat Aug 26 13:49:40 UTC 2006

With a Changing World Comes An Urgency to Learn Chinese

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 26, 2006; A01

Pearl Terrell was so determined that her great-granddaughter Shayla begin
learning Chinese that she spent two weeks this summer driving 100 miles a
day from her home in West Virginia to a middle school in Frederick County
so the soon-to-be fifth-grader could learn the language. The U.S.
government flew 10 teachers to Washington from China this month and gave
them a five-day crash course in Dupont Circle on how to teach --
American-style -- before dispatching them to schools across the country.
Although the number may seem small, the scramble to recruit and train
these teachers for the start of this school year underscores the urgency
the Bush administration is placing on establishing Chinese programs in
U.S. classrooms.

After years of insisting that the world speak English, of grants and
initiatives that established foreign language programs in fits and starts,
Americans have awakened to a far more global playing field and the need
for specialized languages, economists say. And nowhere is that more
evident than with China. "China is being mentioned everywhere in relation
to everything from business, international affairs -- even the war on
terror," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a professor of political science at the
University of Michigan. "You buy things in the store -- they're made in
China. . . . No one is hearing about France as the way of the future."

More than 1.3 billion people worldwide speak Chinese, and about 885
million of those people speak Mandarin, China's official language and
dominant dialect. In the United States, only about 24,000 students in
grades seven through 12 study the language, according to a report from the
Asia Society, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that seeks to build ties
between the United States and Asia. But educators say those students
reflect a steady growth in the number of Americans wanting to learn
Chinese. "People are finally beginning to pay attention to Mandarin as a
major cultural and economic prospect for students," said Michael H.
Levine, executive director of education for the Asia Society. "The push is
coming from the defense [community] and government and grass-roots
interest from parents."

In January, President Bush unveiled a $114 million initiative aimed at
increasing the number of so-called critical languages, such as Chinese and
Arabic, taught in U.S. schools. The 10 Chinese teachers are the first
recruits in a program the Bush administration hopes to expand to include
teachers of Russian, Korean, Farsi and other critical languages. "This is
the largest initiative of its kind focused on language in half a century,"
said Thomas A. Farrell, deputy assistant secretary for academic programs
at the State Department. There is no official tracking of Chinese
programs, but about 96 public and private U.S. schools offer Arabic,
according to the National Capital Language Resource Center, a joint
project of Georgetown and George Washington universities and the nonprofit
Center for Applied Linguistics.  This fall, for example, Springbrook High
School in Silver Spring will offer Arabic for the first time.

Chinese language courses are not new, particularly in the Washington area,
where schools have long had an international bent. In Montgomery County,
Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Richard Montgomery high schools have offered
Mandarin since the late 1980s. Fairfax County schools have offered it
since the 1990s. But what is new is that interest in such courses no
longer comes exclusively from Asian parents, who viewed the programs as a
way for their children to maintain ties to their culture. Increasingly,
it's non-Asian parents who want their children to learn Chinese, citing
the desire to remain competitive for the best jobs. For example, in the
Chinese language program offered in Frederick County this summer, only two
of the 16 children were Asian.

"They want their children to have an edge, and they see Chinese as helping
them get that," said Paula Patrick, foreign language coordinator for
Fairfax public schools, where about 1,200 students take Chinese. This
fall, more than a third of Maryland's public school systems will offer
Mandarin -- more than twice the number that offered it last year.  (Some
U.S. schools teach Cantonese, the dialect widely spoken in Hong Kong and
the language spoken by many early Chinese immigrants, but far more offer
Mandarin.) In Virginia, where five school systems offer Chinese, educators
in Fairfax launched a program last year to offer lessons to 1,000 students
at two elementary campuses. That's in addition to the programs it offers
at three high schools, where about 200 students are taking part. In
Montgomery, where 17 schools offer courses, program enrollment increased
59 percent last year, from 656 students to 1,041.

In the District, H Street Community Development Corp. offered Chinese
language training to 11 high school students this summer. At Washington
Latin School, a public charter school slated to open next month in
Northwest Washington, educators are hoping that their Mandarin program
will be a draw for families when formal courses are offered in 2008.
School systems in Philadelphia, Houston, New York City and Portland, Ore.,
are poised to launch Chinese programs. Chicago public schools teach more
than 3,500 students in the largest program in the nation.

Kathryn B. Groth, vice president of the Frederick school board, whose
system will start a Mandarin program this fall, said she welcomes the
global focus. "I think Americans who used to feel other people needed to
learn [English] now realize that the time has come when that doesn't work
anymore," Groth said. "I've heard from people who say: 'Forget the
engineering. Learn the foreign language. If you want a job, the foreign
language is going to sell your engineering.' "

For her part, Terrell, the West Virginia great-grandmother, easily could
have enrolled her great-granddaughter in Spanish or French courses and
saved a lot of gas money. Terrell never considered foreign language a
must-have when she was growing up, but she has changed her worldview.
"China is an up-and-coming country," Terrell said. "And if [Shayla] learns
Chinese, it will be good for her -- and maybe she can teach me some as
well." In the sun-dappled classroom in Frederick County, Shayla and her
classmates were more than eager to show off their language skills. Ariana
Sadoughi, 9, of Frederick ticked off a list of Chinese phrases she had
mastered: ni hao (how are you?), xie xie (thank you).

In another corner of the room, Xinchun Song was showing another group of
students how to write the Chinese characters for big sister, little sister
and mother. At one point, she separated the two characters that combine to
form the word "mother," explaining to the children that when separated,
one character translates to "horse" and the other represents "female."
"Does that mean my mother is a female horse?" one boy asked with alarm.
"No, no, no," Song said as she tried to explain the complexities of
Chinese writing. Yet even as U.S. educators are being pushed to expand
Chinese programs, they are running into obstacles. It is difficult to find
people qualified to teach.

Only a few universities in the United States offer teacher certification
programs in Mandarin, according to Levine, of the Asia Society. Last year,
George Mason University added a program to certify Mandarin teachers, but
only two people have enrolled. That's why exchanges such as the one that
brought the 10 Chinese teachers, as well as two Arabic instructors from
Jordan, to the United States are so critical, said the State Department's
Farrell. "This will help us get a jump-start," he said. The initiative to
bring foreign teachers here will be complemented by a similar effort to
send Americans overseas for language training, he said.

Still, some fear that school systems -- particularly those that serve
mainly poor and minority children -- might not be willing to make the
investment in adding language classes because they are focused on pushing
students to meet reading, writing and mathematics goals required under the
federal No Child Left Behind Act. The Chinese government, however, is
trying to do what it can to promote Chinese language. Hanban, or the
National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, a
nongovernmental organization funded by the Chinese government, has been
instrumental in providing materials and in some cases helping school
systems recruit teachers from China.

This summer, Hanban worked with the National Association of Independent
Schools, a group representing U.S. private schools, to send a nine-member
delegation to China that recruited 19 teachers for 16 schools. Hanban has
also forged a partnership with the College Board, the organization that
administers the SAT and Advanced Placement exams. This fall, the College
Board will begin offering AP Chinese courses in select schools. Hanban
will help the organization recruit instructors from China to help teach
the courses. For their part, the Chinese teachers who trained in Dupont --
still full of energy after a long day of lectures on "The Culture of the
American School" -- were eager to share their language and traditions with
U.S.  students.

Said Shijun Chen, a high school teacher from Beijing: "We feel very
excited and very lucky to bring our culture here. It will be a really good
challenge for us."

 2006 The Washington Post Company



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