Chinese language is on the rise

Pauline Vu

American students have been learning to say “hola” and “bonjour” for years now, but lately, more and more of them are learning to say “ni hao.”

An interest to learn Chinese has surged in the United States as China has risen as a global and economic power. In 2000, there were about 5,000 students studying Mandarin Chinese in U.S. public schools, according to the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Now that number is between 30,000 and 50,000, leaving states and districts scrambling to find enough qualified teachers.

The College Board, which administers college-related exams, will debut an Advanced Placement (AP) test in Chinese this spring. A 2004 survey that found that about 2,400 high schools wanted to offer AP classes in Chinese.

“That was quite unexpected,” said Selena Cantor, the College Board’s director of Chinese language and culture. “It was a real wake-up, an important moment for us to recognize the interest that was out there.”

Cantor said the College Board expects 1,500 to 2,000 students to take the inaugural Chinese exam.

By contrast, last year 21,572 students took the French AP test, and 101,473 took the Spanish exam.

The federal government has provided one of the biggest boosts for Chinese. In January 2006, President Bush announced the National Security Language Initiative to increase Americans’ proficiency in “critical languages” such as Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, Japanese and Russian. The program handed out $22 million in grants to states and districts to set up or expand language programs.

But none of the critical languages have taken off in K-12 public schools as fast as Chinese has. Out of 74 grants awarded under the initiative, 67 of them — as well as 75 percent of the money — went to Chinese programs, compared with only four programs for Arabic, according to Cynthia Ryan, the director of the initiative’s grants division.

Still, the demand for Chinese classes has far outpaced the supply of teachers. Shuhan Wang, executive director of the Asia Society’s Chinese language initiative, said the United States has only about 300 to 400 qualified Chinese teachers — not nearly enough to serve the 2,400 schools that want to offer the language.

States are dealing with the shortage in several ways. Kentucky premiered an online Chinese course this school year, developed with the help of a teacher from China. Ohio is beginning a pilot program to train teachers to teach Mandarin to students in kindergarten through sixth grade. Arkansas has made it easier for already-certified teachers to get state certificates to teach Chinese.

The Chinese government has also stepped up to help fill the void. Hanban, a government agency working to spread Chinese around the world, has partnered with the College Board and several states to send volunteer teachers to the United States. The Chinese government pays part or all of the teacher’s salary while the school district pays for the teacher to live with a host family and handles visa arrangements and teacher certification.

The program is why the number of Connecticut students studying Chinese has increased tenfold during the last two years, from 300 to 3,000 students, said Mary Ann Hansen, the state education department’s World Languages consultant.

Last year Connecticut hosted five Chinese teachers, and this year added another four with help from Hanban. One school that used a volunteer last year hired a teacher from Connecticut this year.

“(Districts) jumped to the plate when we offered this,” Hansen said.

One added bonus: The program helps low-income districts that otherwise could not afford to offer Chinese. The districts starting their own Chinese classes outside of the program tend to be richer, Hansen said. But thanks to the program, at least three low-income districts are teaching their students Chinese.

Minnesota also will soon begin a similar volunteer teacher program with China. In addition to that, last year the Legislature gave Gov. Tim Pawlenty $250,000 to convene a Chinese instruction task force soon after the governor returned from a trip to China in November 2005.

“He came home really convinced that our students needed to learn Mandarin Chinese because of the trade connections that we’ll be having with them in the future,” said Alice Seagren, the Minnesota Education Commissioner.

The task force has developed a Chinese language curriculum that districts can use. This year, Pawlenty’s two-year budget request included $500,000 to award to districts that want to offer Chinese classes. Minnesota has about 2,000 students studying Chinese, but Seagren said she thinks the state can eventually raise that number to 10,000.

Pauline Vu