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Chinese foreign language programs grow at schools

While Spanish still reigns in U.S. schools, educators are beginning to prepare students to deal with an emerging world economic power.

Associated Press
Published April 25, 2005

STUART - Red lanterns, delicate Chinese paper cuttings and poems about Beijing mountains adorn a small corner of a Stuart classroom that used to be dominated by Spanish decorations.

A dozen eighth-graders file into the St. Michael's Independent School room, where they are greeted by teacher Liu Yanling, a Chengdu citizen who is dressed in a brilliant pink and gold Chinese dress known as qi pao.

Liu's class studies these Chinese characters.

"I want to give the kids an introduction to the language and the culture so at least they can continue on next year," the teacher said.

For the next 40 minutes, Liu, known as Emily to her American colleagues, takes her students on an exotic journey through ancient empires, modern Chinese fashion and basic conversational Mandarin.

And then the Spanish class comes in.

Spanish remains, by far, the most prevalent foreign language class offered in Florida and the United States.

But with China's emergence as an economic power, schools in Palm Beach County and elsewhere on Florida's south-central Atlantic coast are beginning to expose their students to the world's most widely spoken language.

"We decided to offer Chinese because of what's happening with the Chinese economy and the world order," St. Michael's Headmaster Jim Cantwell said.

"China is becoming the world's largest economy, and with one-quarter of the world's population, we want to prepare our 21st-century students to be conversant with this culture."

The Stuart school began offering Chinese to seventh- and eighth-graders for the first time this year and is the only school in its area to do so, according to the Florida Foreign Language Association.

In Palm Beach County, Watson B. Duncan Middle School and William T. Dwyer High School also began offering Chinese classes this year.

They are the only two public schools in the state to offer Chinese classes, according to the state Department of Education.

Other Palm Beach County students have access to a Chinese class on television.

"Chinese is the language of the future, if not right now," Dwyer Assistant Principal Corrine Licata said. "Naturally, we want to get our kids ready for the international market."

More people worldwide speak Mandarin Chinese, about 1.1-billion, as a primary language than any other language in the world, according to a study published in Language Today magazine.

English, which has the second-highest total, has 330-million primary speakers.

Although 150-million people speak English as a secondary language, just 20-million nonnative speakers understand Mandarin.

U.S. schools are beginning to close that gap.

Enrollment in Chinese classes at the K-12 level in the United States grew 65 percent, from 14,490 to 23,850 students, from 1997 to 2002, according to a Princeton University study.

For perspective on how many students that is, consider the total enrollment in the Martin County School District is about 19,000 students, or that 5-million U.S. high school students were in Spanish classes in 2002.

University of Hawaii Professor Cyndy Ning, executive director of the Chinese Language Teachers Association, said U.S. schools need to do a better job of preparing students for lives in the global village.

"American students could use a lot more work getting ready for international interactions," Ning said. "Compared to other nations in the world, American schools do not spend as much of their resources getting to know other nations as other nations' schools spend getting to know America."

In Liu's Chinese class at St. Michael's, eighth-graders are just trying to master the not-so-simple fundamentals of the peculiar new language.

"Chinese phonetics are very difficult, and it can be really difficult for the kids to catch," Liu said. St. Michael's, Duncan Middle and Dwyer High officials all intend to continue offering Chinese lessons.

At St. Michael's, middle students can continue their studies when their new high school opens in 2006. At Duncan Middle, students can continue their Chinese lessons when they feed into Dwyer High.

Officials at St. Michael's and Dwyer say there are plans to start a high school student exchange program with Chinese schools.

"I've had history and math classes for a long time, so this is a chance to try something new," St. Michael's eighth-grader Nick Denton said. "Learning how to pronounce all the different tones is a lot of fun."

[Last modified April 25, 2005, 01:04:14]

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