Mandarin speaks to a growing audience

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?” FOR THE RECORD:
Teaching Mandarin: Captions accompanying a story in Sunday’s Section A about the growing number of American schools that offer Mandarin Chinese instruction gave incorrect names for two students at the Chinese American International School in San Francisco. Karina Koo was misspelled as Katrina Koom and Sophie Go was misidentified as Siena Belda. —
“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 United States is frantically trying to increase the ranks of students in “critical languages” such as Mandarin, students here are ahead of the curve — way ahead.

Founded 25 years ago, this small private school in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley 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.”

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. By some estimates, 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.”

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. (With some exceptions, public schools require teachers to be credentialed, while private schools do not.) 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 an American classroom with the benefit of hindsight. It was not an easy adjustment, he said. In China, “respect is the No. 1 thing. Students respect their teachers,” he said. 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.

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, which is known familiarly by its abbreviation, 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 teachers aides before they get 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. Of course, all of this comes at a price: Tuition is $17,200 to $18,000 a year. Nearly a quarter of the student body receives some financial aid.

Spreading the words

With his school’s success as a model, CAIS headmaster Andrew Corcoran has been working with the Chinese government to improve training of teachers who are sent to the United States. Many come as part of a Chinese government program called Hanban, which is sort of a cross between the Peace Corps and Teach for America, the volunteer teacher program. Hanban sends Mandarin teachers throughout the world and pays their salaries as they share their knowledge of Chinese language and culture.

Corcoran said that of 30 Hanban teachers sent to the United States last year, 27 went home without having their contracts renewed for a second year. Their teaching style was too out of sync with American culture. “They’ve never worked in a place where they didn’t stand on a podium in front of 60 or 70 students,” Corcoran said. “My fear is that if these teachers are not successful, then the support for teaching Chinese will wane, because people will say, ‘Well, we tried it but it didn’t work.’ ”

Corcoran said Hanban officials were sufficiently concerned to invite him last summer to China, where he helped train this year’s class of America-bound teachers.

A Hanban official confirmed that American educators were sought to help with training, but otherwise disputed Corcoran’s account. In an e-mail from Beijing, Zhou Jie, who is in charge of U.S. volunteers, insisted that there had not been “any bad feedback” from either the teachers or their American host schools. She said that only seven teachers had been dispatched to the United States in 2005, and four of them were retained for another year. Forty-one volunteers have been sent so far this year, and about 60 more will be coming, Zhou said. The volunteers “are of high adaptability and [have a] strong sense of responsibility,” she said.

Still, to the extent that there are problems, they are the problems of success — too much, too fast.

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 about 5,000 six years ago to as many as 50,000 today, a tenfold increase. The U.S. Department of Education puts the number at about half that.

Whichever is correct, the number is expected to continue rising. 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.

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

Spanish heads the class

Today, 85% of the foreign-language enrollment in the United States is in Spanish, according to Abbott, of the Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Next comes French, followed by a smattering of Italian and German. Russian, Japanese and Mandarin trail.

Parental pressure helped push Chicago to launch the largest Chinese-language program in the U.S. — classes in 28 schools that reach 6,000 students from kindergarten to 12th grade. “We’re so lucky to have parents who are going to fight for this,” said Bob Davis, director of Chinese-language instruction for the Chicago Public Schools.

And when Mark Brooks, director of the private Pilgrim School in Los Angeles, proposed making Mandarin a required course for all seventh-graders this year, parents embraced it. “We’re trying to give educations to children for jobs that haven’t even been created yet…. Parents get that.”

Still, Chinese classes have a distinctly regional cast. Chicago has the most ambitious program, although Portland, Ore., has announced plans for a Mandarin program that would take children from kindergarten through college. The Bay Area, with its large, deeply rooted Chinese American population, is another leader.

Aside from the Chinese immigrant communities in the San Gabriel Valley, Southern California has generally lagged. The Los Angeles Unified School District offers Mandarin at two of its 60 high schools.

Gay Yuen, a professor of education at Cal State L.A., runs a program that grants credentials to Mandarin teachers and has been working with schools to encourage the expansion of Chinese instruction. She has been frustrated by the relative lack of interest.

“I think there’s still a lot of conservatism in our area,” Yuen said.

There wasn’t a lot of interest in Mandarin in San Francisco, either, when CAIS was founded in September 1981 by a former San Francisco County supervisor, Carol Ruth Silver. She had adopted a child from Taiwan and realized there was nowhere he could attend school in his native language. The first class had four students and one teacher.

Today, roughly 400 children are enrolled. The school teaches half the day in English and half in Chinese, and from preschool on, students in the Chinese classes hear only Mandarin from their teachers. Students learn subjects such as math, science and social studies in both languages.

One of the biggest problems students face is what to do after they leave CAIS, since their Chinese abilities are beyond those of the most advanced high school classes. Some attend after-school classes at CAIS; others move on to other languages but often return to Chinese in college.

Mandarin, with its lack of a phonetic alphabet and thousands of distinct characters, is considered a relatively difficult language to learn. But “if it’s hard, they don’t know it’s hard,” 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.”

China to reform Chinese proficiency test for non-native speakers

The Chinese Proficiency Test (HSK — Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) for non-native speakers is to be reformed with new tests focusing more on comprehensive language ability and communication skills, the HSK center announced Thursday.

“The reformed HSK will be launched in 2007 with an oral test and essay writing section added,” said Sun Dejin, director of the HSK Center of Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU).

The HSK center decided to reduce the former 11 grades of HSK test to three grades: elementary, intermediate and advanced, Sun said.

“In April, 2007, both the old and new HSK tests will be held together and examinees can choose one or both,” Sun said, stressing the new HSK test would completely replace the old one in 2008.”

The HSK center would provide examinees with information on the new test, Sun said.

“The reform is based on research and surveys, including studies of linguistics and psychology as well as communication with foreign experts,” Sun said.

The HSK is a national standardized test to assess the Chinese language proficiency of non-native speakers including foreigners, overseas Chinese and students of China’s ethnic minorities.

Designed by the BLCU in 1984 and launched abroad in 1991, the test is offered in 87 cities in 35 countries and regions. To date, about 1.3 million examinees have sat the test.

Chinese is growing in popularity throughout the world, according to the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language.

An official from the office predicted last September that about 100 million foreigners would learn Chinese by 2010.

Williamstown school adds Chinese program

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

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.

Ohio grade school students to learn Chinese

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Mandarin Chinese is getting a place in some Ohio elementary schools.

The state is receiving nearly $470,000 in federal funding for Chinese language programs in kindergarten through sixth grade. The Ohio Department of Education will contribute an additional $535,554 for the three-year program, a department news release said.

The state expects about 2,000 elementary school students will learn Chinese in the 2008-2009 school year in several school districts. Teachers will receive training in the summer to implement the curriculum.

School districts that have been chosen for the pilot project include the Columbus Public Schools, Shaker Heights City Schools near Cleveland and the Belpre City Schools in southeast Ohio. School districts in northeast Ohio’s Chagrin Falls and Beavercreek and Tipp City, both near Dayton, also were chosen.

Bridging language gap – Free Chinese lessons offered in Flushing New York

New Chinese immigrants to New York have long struggled to master the language of their new home. Now some of their English-speaking neighbors are trying to return the gesture.

Thanks to popular demand, free classes in Mandarin are being offered weekly at the community center in the Bland Houses projects in downtown Flushing, the center of the city’s largest Chinatown.

Donald Henton, 73, a retired MTA New York bus driver and longtime resident of the Bland Houses, said he broached the idea to Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) one night at a local political fund-raiser.

“We were at this meeting, and everyone was speaking Chinese,” said Henton, who is on the advisory board for the Bland Houses Community Center.

“So I said, ‘Why don’t you get a class together so non-Asians can learn the language?’”

Liu approached Man-Li Kuo, a former Flushing resident who has been teaching Chinese language classes in her spare time for nearly 30 years.

Kuo volunteered to teach the classes, which will be held Wednesday evenings from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. for 10 weeks, though Liu added that if interest is high, he will look into extending the classes. They are open to the entire community.

“Language is something to be embraced. It should not be a barrier to anyone,” said Liu.

Kuo, 51, who moved to New York from her native Taiwan in 1983, says it is critical for people of all walks of life to learn foreign languages.

Kuo holds a graduate degree in Chinese literature and has spent years teaching English to new immigrants as well as Chinese to Americans.

“We would very much like those people to learn Chinese and feel welcome when they’re in the Chinese community,” she said.

In addition to her day job as a federal government worker in Manhattan, she spends her Saturdays teaching Chinese language, dance and martial arts to Chinese adoptive children and their families in Long Island.

That effort grew out of demand from the growing number of American families who have adopted babies from China and want their children to remain in touch with their cultural roots.

Twice a year, she takes her “class” of about 50 families on a field trip to the Little China of downtown Flushing, where they visit stores, restaurants and a Buddhist temple.

Kuo doesn’t expect people to become fluent in the language after a 10-week course. “But even if they can just learn to say, ‘Hello’ when they go to the Chinese store, the salesclerk will treat them differently,” she said.

The first class, held last week in New York Flushing, drew about 45 people, who also learned some basic tai-chi during the break, said Henton.

“This brings better friendship among people in the community,” said Henton.

“My neighbors are Chinese, and it will be great to say hi to them in their language and learn Chinese.”

by R. SCHEIER courtsey


Educator teaches Chinese language to West Hartford high schoolers

WEST HARTFORD nWith an eye on enhancing relations between the U.S, and China, there has been a growing interest in teaching Chinese in public schools in recent years.

In 2005, Sen. Joe Lieberman introduced a bill asking for $1.3 billion to fund Chinese language classes in U.S. public schools during the next five years.

To that end, more than 100 students at Hall High School and Conard High School, both located in West Hartford, have been studying Mandarin Chinese. The Chinese teacher at both schools is Lauren Drazen, who majored in Chinese language at Dartmouth University.

Drazen, a native of Glastonbury and graduate of Glastonbury High School, says she fell in love with the Chinese language during her freshman year in college. After graduating, she parlayed her love for the language into a job with a company in Washington, D.C. which allowed her to make many trips to China. As a private instructor, she has also taught Chinese to the employees of private companies who travel extensively in China., and has also taught Chinese at Manchester Community College.

Drazen, who also holds a master’s degree in curriculum and teaching from Michigan State University, has also taught elementary school in Michigan and California.

A member of Temple Sinai in Newington, where she celebrated her bat mitzvah in 1983, she is also principal of the Kehilat Chaverim Religious School in West Hartford.
She lives in West Hartford with her husband, NBC-Channel 30 anchor Brad Drazen and their three children. She recently explained her interest in Chinese and why she thinks it is important for our children to learn that language.

Q: What made you want to major in Chinese in college n where did that interest come from?

A: I went to the “freshman fair” the week before classes started. My plan was to major in Spanish-my favorite course at Glastonbury High School. Each department had its own table where professors answered students’ questions. The Spanish department table was teeming with students, and I was not in the mood for crowds. I checked out the “student free” Chinese table. Bai Laoshi and Mao Laoshi, two women professors, convinced me to try Chinese. By virtue of the Spanish I took in high school, I was able to skip the beginning Spanish classes, so if I didn’t like Chinese, they explained, I could take up Spanish later without missing anything. I took Chinese One, loved it, and never looked back. I was inspired by Bai Laoshi and Mao Laoshi, who became my mentors.

Q: Is Chinese a difficult language for English speakers to master?

A: Chinese is unique because the grammar rules are quite simple. For example, there is no verb conjugation in Chinese-no past tense, future tense, subjunctive, etc. Once a verb is learned, the verb is the same no matter what time period is being discussed. The general understanding of time is solely based on context. Plus, Chinese word order is very similar to English.

Of course, the difficult part to master is memorizing the characters. There is no alphabet; each character represents one word. In order to read the newspaper, you have to have to memorize approximately 3,000-4,000 characters.

Q: What is the difference between Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese?

A: Mandarin and Cantonese are two of the Chinese dialects. Mandarin is the official dialect of China; in addition, there are several other dialects from the various regions of China. The difference lies in the pronunciation of the words. The written language and meaning of the characters are the same. People from Guangzhou, who speak Cantonese, and people from Beijing, who speak Mandarin, cannot understand each other when they speak. They can, however, read the same newspaper.

Q: After graduating from Dartmouth, what did you do with your degree?

A: When I graduated, I was hired by an import company that did business in China… My boss was a former lawyer in Washington, D.C. who got fed up with his career in international law. Through his contacts in his law practice, he started a business, importing cashmere sweaters from China. He contacted me through a mutual friend who had worked in DC. When I began working for him in June, 1992, I was his first employee. He didn’t have any experience with the Chinese language, so within the first few months of working in New York, he flew me over to China to meet factory managers, negotiate prices, and inspect goods. I was 22 years old with no business experience. I was so nervous, but I acted like I knew what I was doing. Over then next few years, I went to China every other month for up to six weeks at a time. I loved it.

Q: When and how did your Chinese classes in the West Hartford high schools come about? Were they looking to offer Chinese classes?

A: The town had taken out an ad in the Hartford Courant, looking for a Chinese teacher. A friend of mine saw the ad and told me about it. I contacted Lucy Cartland, the World Language department supervisor, and we hit it off immediately. The whole thing happened really quickly.

Q: Can you describe your classes? Do you only teach the language or also things like Chinese culture?

A: The classes incorporate Chinese spoken and written language as well as Chinese culture. The main emphasis is on the language. The students already know more than 150 characters, both spoken and written. Each week, students are engaged in listening, reading and writing, plus dramatic and musical activities and games in order to enhance their learning.

We have watched movies in Mandarin with English subtitles. Based on these films, students have compared and contrasted Chinese culture with Western cultures. Students have also taken a trip to Chinatown in New York City. They ate a typical Chinese lunch, visited the Museum of Chinese in the Americas and experienced the hustle and bustle of Chinatown. Finally, students are currently engaged in a group Web Quest project. Each member of a group takes on a role as advisor to the U.S. President. The various roles include environmental activist, human rights activist, U.S. Senator, museum curator, business investor and religious leader. Each student does on-line research and completes an individual report. The group then takes the six reports and synthesizes them into a group report with recommendations for U.S. policy toward China.

Q: What grades do you teach, how many levels, and what has been the response from the students?

A: For this school year, 2006-2007, West Hartford Public Schools is offering Chinese One to all four high school grades. For the next school year, 2007-2008, Chinese Two will also be offered.

The students have been very enthusiastic about the program. I try to make the class as enjoyable as I can while making sure that the students are always challenged. The Chinese One students are motivated to learn and interested in both the language and the culture. Most students who are not graduating say they want to continue with Chinese Two next year.

Q: Why is it important in this day and age to offer our students the chance to learn Chinese?

A: Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world. Understanding the language and the culture is important on many different levels-economic, political and social. Offering Chinese in public schools is a wise choice. Learning a language, whether it’s Chinese, Spanish, French, Latin or ancient Greek, opens a new world to young minds. The language learning experience is of utmost importance in understanding our world-past, present and future.

By Stacey Dresner, courtsey

Learn Chinese in New York City NYC, all you need to know!

It seems all big trends are starting from the big cities. From the last several years, a new trend start quietly emerged in New York City – learn Chinese!

New York Magazine published an article last April titled “Great Toddle Forward” talking about a story of a New York American family ambitious about their less than 2 years old child’s future, they hired a Chinese speaking nanny and only speak with the child in Chinese…

It’s true that more and more parents are worring about their children’s future and send them to learn Chinese. It’s also being observed that increasing number of adults and college students are starting learning Chinese. More and more New York universities and schools are offering Chinese classes, worrying about the toughness and competitivity of the job market, the students are expressing more interest in learning Chinese.

Not only job seekers think about increasing their credentials. Over 99% of the Fortune 500 companies are doing business in China. Along with the commitment lead by the Chinese goverment to liberalize it’s economy, not only big New York companies are talking about their “China Strategy”. Big New York companies has been sending their employees to learn Chinese, we count more and more such institutions in New York City specialize in Chinese language training, such as China Institute, Yao Mandarin, Berlitz etc…

Many adventurous New York enterpreneurs and small business owners has been brave enough to enroll in an intensive Chinese class to learn Chinese before fly to “the land of new opportunities”. Some manage to find their business partner and suceed, although not all has good news to report about the “new gold mining” story and all signs are encouraging.