Mandarin studies slowly enter the mainstream

SAN FRANCISCO – Bursting in from recess, 15 children take their seats and face the woman they know as Teacher Yang.

“What day is this?” she asks in Mandarin Chinese.

“Confucius’ birthday!” the fifth-graders shout in Chinese.

“Why do we celebrate Confucius’ birthday?”

“Because he’s the greatest teacher in the history of China!” exclaims a brown-haired girl with decidedly European features. She too is speaking Mandarin.

English is rarely heard in Lisa Yang’s class at the Chinese American International School, despite the fact that few students are native speakers of Mandarin and fewer than half come from families with Chinese ancestry. At a time when the U.S. is frantically trying to increase the ranks of students in “critical languages” such as Mandarin, students here are way ahead of the curve.

Founded 25 years ago, this small private school in San Francisco does what few other American schools do: It produces fully fluent speakers of Mandarin Chinese, by far the most commonly spoken language in the world.

“In the early days – probably up until 10 years ago – we were considered experimental, kind of ‘out there,’ ” said Betty Shon, head of finance for the school, which runs from preschool through eighth grade. “I’d get questions like, ‘What kind of parents want their kids to learn Chinese?’

“Now, there’s just no question. We get families who relocate to the Bay Area just so their kids can go to the school.”

Language ‘explosion’

Mandarin Chinese, the official language of the People’s Republic of China and the most common of numerous Chinese dialects, is suddenly hot in American schools. With China poised to become the world’s leading economy sometime this century, public and private schools are scrambling to add Mandarin to their roster of foreign languages or expand Chinese programs already in place. As many as 50,000 children nationwide are taking Mandarin in school.

“I think we would have to characterize what’s happening with the expansion of Chinese programs right now as an explosion,” said Marty Abbott, director of education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

“It really is almost unprecedented. … People are looking at China as a force to be reckoned with. … And to ensure that the U.S. has the ability to conduct trade, to sell our goods and to work with the Chinese, certainly having an understanding of Chinese language and culture is an advantage.”

Culture shock

The drive to develop Chinese-language programs has not been without its bumps. A shortage of trained, credentialed teachers has made it difficult for some schools to join the race. When schools do get teachers, they often recruit them straight from China – a recipe for a cacophonous culture clash.

Robert Liu, who taught in China before coming to Venice High School, remembers his first two years in a U.S. classroom with the benefit of hindsight. It was not an easy adjustment, he said. In China, “respect is the Number 1 thing. Students respect their teachers,” he said. Mr. Liu found a different paradigm here, where respect must be earned and teachers spend much of their time maintaining order.

“You have to quiet them down and find different activities to attract them or they will lose attention,” he said.

Mr. Liu stuck it out and revamped his teaching style, and Venice supported him (although a few of his students complain that his teaching style is still a bit too static for their taste). But plenty of Chinese teachers wash out after their first year, leaving behind bewildered students and chastened administrators.

The Chinese American International School, or CAIS, has avoided many of the problems with foreign teaching styles by insisting that teachers who come from China, no matter how experienced, work as teacher aides before they take a classroom of their own.

“If you take a teacher from mainland China or from Taiwan, without support, without acculturation, most likely they’re going to fail,” said Kevin Chang, the elementary school director at CAIS.

It also helps that class sizes at CAIS are small – the largest have 20 students, and most have fewer. Tuition is $17,200 to $18,000 a year, and nearly a quarter of the students receive financial aid.

There is no definitive accounting of the number of Mandarin programs in American schools. But the Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages estimates that the number of students in Mandarin classes in public secondary schools has risen from 5,000 six years ago to as many as 50,000 today. The U.S. Department of Education puts the number at about half that.

The number is expected to rise. Pressure and encouragement are coming from far-flung sources, including the White House, the Chinese government and the College Board, which is offering an Advanced Placement test in Mandarin for the first time next year.

National security matter

In January, President Bush proposed $57 million in federal spending to encourage the teaching of languages considered crucial to national security, including Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean. In announcing the plan, the administration noted that, in contrast to the number of Americans learning Mandarin, “more than 200 million children in China are studying English.”

Mandarin, with its lack of a phonetic alphabet and thousands of characters, is considered a relatively difficult language to learn. But “if it’s hard, they don’t know it,” said Christie Chessen, who has a daughter in second grade and a son in kindergarten at CAIS.

She speaks no Chinese herself. Her children’s idea of fun, she said, is to practice writing Chinese characters. She constantly finds herself thinking, “Oh my God, my kid is doing something that I will never in my lifetime be able to do.”

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