Chinese a siren song for those watching global growth

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Mar 31 13:45:13 UTC 2006

>>From the Morning Call, Allentown, PA[March 30, 2006]

Chinese a siren song for those watching global growth

In Moravian Academy's Lower School building, which stands next to
weathered 18th century tombstones in Bethlehem's historic downtown, the
clock is ticking. L.J. Hurley, Evan Burlew and two other third-graders
hunch over their desks to look at the Chinese characters in their colored
workbooks. Haiyan Gao, the teacher, points to a page and asks, Shian zhai
je dia? "Can you repeat the sentence?" Evan asks. "It's a time, not a
sentence," L.J. corrects, understanding that her question was: What time
is it?

The four 9-year-olds are studying Mandarin because their parents and
principal see the growing importance of China in the 21st century. Like
many other educators across the country, Lower School Director Ella Jane
Kunkle believes the Chinese language will play an even bigger role in the
global marketplace by the time her third-graders become adults. In the
past year, politicians and policy experts also have fallen in line like
Chinese dominoes, realizing the education system isn't keeping up with the
world because there aren't enough U.S. students studying Chinese and
enough teachers to teach it.

Business is driving the demand. Lehigh Valley companies that deal with
China -- like their counterparts around the world -- see a mounting need
for employees who speak Mandarin to help them connect with the country
that has the fastest-growing economy on the planet. "I was doing a lot of
reading, thinking about what these students will need in 20 years," Kunkle
said. "I thought language will be very, very important, especially the
nontraditional languages." For now, private Moravian Academy and the
nonprofit, volunteer-run Huaxia Chinese School at Northampton Community
College might be the only schools in the Lehigh Valley teaching Chinese.
And several educators argue that the wrong languages are being taught in
the public schools.

Joseph Lewis, superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District, said
he'd like to offer students Chinese, but he can't find a teacher, so the
district continues to teach European languages. "I think we're teaching
the wrong languages in many instances," he said.  "I'd argue those
languages have run their course because French, German are not part of the
global economy." A study by the nonprofit Asia Society found more than 1
million U.S.  students learn French, which is spoken by 80 million people.
By comparison, 24,000 students in seventh through 12th grade learn
Chinese, spoken by 1.3 billion people.

"Learning Chinese is one step we need to be engaged in a global economy,"
said Michael Levine, executive director of the Asia Society. "It is time
for the United States to really make international education and language
a part of U.S. education reform, if we want to compete and respect our
colleagues and allies in other countries." Many Westerners have difficulty
learning Chinese because it is a tonal language, meaning that a word's
pitch matters as much as its pronunciation. In English, pitch is used only
for emphasis. In Chinese, it affects the entire meaning of the word. The
Pennsylvania Department of Education does not know how many certified
Chinese-language teachers are in the state or how many districts offer
Chinese-language courses, which is what several Lehigh Valley districts
are trying to do.

Parkland School District is in preliminary discussions with Lehigh
University in Bethlehem and other higher education institutions to provide
a Chinese-language instructor to teach a night course. Local school
districts, however, might not need a teacher in the classroom.
Northwestern Lehigh School District, with the help of the nonprofit Center
for Advancing Partnerships in Education, is looking to set up an
Internet-based distance learning Chinese course. It would be similar to a
high school Japanese course the district established with Villanova
University three years ago -- a course that Parkland will link to in the

Jerry Richter, executive director of the Center for Advancing Partnerships
in Education, a statewide consortium of educational and public
institutions based in Allentown, said with a dearth of certified teachers,
schools can take advantage of video conferencing. "With the technology
today, it doesn't much matter where the instructors are," Richter said.
Gao, the instructor at Moravian, is a Chinese-educated engineer who became
a stay-at-home mother when she moved to Lower Macungie Township 14 years
ago. While districts look for teachers like Gao, hundreds of children,
mostly first-generation Chinese, have walked through the doors of Huaxia
Chinese School-Lehigh Valley Branch at NCC.

The school was founded in 1999 by a small group of Chinese immigrants to
ensure their first-generation children retained their native language and
heritage. The program, held Saturdays, has grown from one class to seven
classes, three for native Chinese speakers and three -- soon to be four --
classes for non-native speakers. "When we started this seven years ago,
actually, we didn't expect so much interest from the local community,"
said Xiaoyi He, 40, of Orefield, an Air Products and Chemicals engineer
who serves as a volunteer vice principal at Huaxia. "At the time, the
school was for Chinese families, but in the last year, we've seen more
interest outside of the Chinese community." Since the technology explosion
across the world in the late 1990s, China's communist government has
loosened its control over the country's economy and banking system, with
dramatic results. China now has the second-largest economy in the world.

Asia is the fastest-growing market for Air Products, which provides
training in Mandarin and other languages and employs about 1,050 people in
China, up from about 700 in 2003. Research and manufacturing work in China
is expected to keep growing, said Douglas Moyer, the Trexlertown company's
manager of university relations.  That will continue to create
opportunities for people who know the language, he said. "Our Chinese
employees speak English. Would it not make sense for us to be able to
[speak Chinese]?" he asked.

Victaulic Co. of America, the Forks Township maker of pipe couplings and
fittings, has done business in China and other Asian countries for more
than 20 years. The company employs 250 people at sales offices, warehouses
and manufacturing facilities in China, including a plant in Dalian that it
opened last year. Agere Systems, which makes chips, has long viewed China
as a source of clients and as a place to operate facilities. The company
based in Hanover Township, Lehigh County, opened its first Chinese office
in 2002. It now has three locations there that employ 100 people in sales
and chip design. In his best-selling book, "The World is Flat," Thomas
Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, explores how
technology has shrunk the planet's size since the fall of the Berlin Wall
in 1989, allowing countries like China and India to participate and
compete in a global economy.

In a telephone interview, Friedman said Americans need to understand the
Chinese language and culture. It's a fact, he said, China will continue to
manufacture more products for Americans and buy more American products. He
said U.S. companies will need educated workers who can communicate with
workers in Russia, China and India working on the same problem. "I think
it's going to be one of the biggest middle-class jobs -- collaborators,"
Friedman said. "Collaborators are people who are good at working as part
of global knowledge, manufacturing or supply chains." Moravian Academy
third-grader L.J. has no idea he could be part of this education
revolution. All he knows is the Mandarin characters are harder to memorize
than the pronunciations, and his mother likes it when he speaks Chinese.

"I used to study two different languages, French and Spanish, at my other
school," L.J. said. "I'll probably try to continue. When we go to New York
and try to go to Chinatown, usually I get money or a reward for [saying]
xie xie. It means 'thank you.' "

Reporters Kurt Blumenau and Jeanne Bonner contributed to this story.

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