WILLIAMSTOWN — Students at Williamstown Elementary School will soon be speaking Mandarin Chinese.
“We’re going into the future,” Superintendant Rose Ellis said Thursday. “We’re thinking about the impact of China on the global village.”
Chinese lessons will be the newest addition to the school’s Sunrise Language program. Parents Barbara Robertson and Kaatje White helped found the program last year by offering students from kindergarten through sixth grade an opportunity to learn Spanish before the normal school day began.
Robertson and White have continually participated in educational programs over the years but do not speak Chinese. White, mother of three, said last week that the Spanish lessons were very popular, but parents did not want to stop there.
“Chinese is the second-most-used language on the Internet after English,” she said, referencing a statistic published on www.internetworldstats.com.
A bar graph on the Web site shows 322 million Internet users view English-language Web sites, while 144 million surf the Web in Chinese. There are two major Chinese dialects —
Mandarin and Cantonese. About 1.3 billion people speak Chinese, 885 million of whom speak Mandarin.
After consulting with a few, local Chinese speakers, White said she discovered that students who learned Spanish easily may have more difficulty acquiring Chinese.
“It takes an average American six months to learn Spanish, but at least two years for someone to learn Chinese,” she said.
“If a person were completely immersed,” Robertson, mother of two, added.
Children in Sunrise Language are only immersed in a foreign-language for a half-hour three days a week for 12 weeks. White said limitations in time and resources prompted her to ask the superintendent whether she wanted to prioritize language skills or exposure to the Chinese culture.
“We decided it’s a culture and language, not a language and culture, program,” White said.
With a cultural emphasis, children will engage in activities such as Chinese cooking and games.
“With the flattening of the world, we want to raise the level of cultural literacy, especially with the Chinese culture,” Ellis said.
White said Youlin Shi, who taught a Chinese language class this semester at Massachusetts College of LIberal Arts and is a tai chi instructor in North Adams, will lead lessons at the elementary school.
“First I’m going to just give them a little bit of a taste — and wake them up and let them have an interest to learn Chinese,” Shi said Friday.
White said she is looking for more teachers.
“There’s a huge demand, and it’s difficult to find people who are fluent in Chinese and English and who are good teachers,” she said.
Ellis said grants from the federal and state governments may soon help boost the Chinese language program.
“There’s a lot of support on the national level as well as on the state level to jumpstart programs,” she said.
President Bush unveiled a $114 million initiative in January aimed at increasing the number of languages, such as Chinese and Arabic, taught in U.S. schools.
“I think that to learn the Chinese language, it’s not too easy,” Shi said. “But drop by drop, step by step, you will learn more and more. The most important thing is that you be patient and practice and you will learn — like with anything else.”
Sunrise Language students pay an extra $150 for the morning lessons, and space is limited to about 25. Children who are home-schooled or who attend different institutions may apply for the program, but Williamstown Elementary School pupils have preference.
Classes will begin Tuesday, Jan. 16, and will meet from 8 to 8:30 a.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays. Pupils much choose between Spanish and Chinese lessons and cannot take lessons in both at the same time.