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Turning kids' tongues toward Asia

Schools are expanding their range of language instruction - especially toward Chinese.

By LETITIA STEIN
Published November 24, 2006


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TAMPA - Shenggao Wang writes the phrase on the board, first in Chinese characters, then in letters students can recognize.

He reads out, "gan-en-jie."

His students at Ferrell Middle Magnet School repeat the sing-songy accents on the vowels. In the Chinese dialect of Mandarin, they have just learned the phrase for "Thanksgiving."

This classroom may well be the future of foreign language instruction in Hillsborough. Next year, three other middle schools - Greco, Jennings and Williams magnet - will join Ferrell in teaching Mandarin.

The project, funded through a federal grant, is a major step in broadening Hillsborough's foreign language curriculum. Only a handful of schools now offer classes in "nontraditional" languages, a term that includes Japanese, Portuguese and Italian.

And Mandarin.

"Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world today," said Melissa Morgado, Hillsborough's foreign language supervisor. "We felt it was important to offer this to our students in order to prepare them for the global marketplace."

The call to expand foreign language instruction carries national urgency. The Homeland Security Department considers knowledge of Chinese languages critical to the nation's future.

In recent years, schools across America have responded to growing political and economic pressure by adding nontraditional languages to classrooms long dominated by Spanish and French.

The transition isn't simple one.

"We know it takes longer to learn Chinese than to learn Spanish or French or German," said Nancy Rhodes, director of foreign language education at the Center for Applied Linguistics. "Are students willing to put that extra effort into learning Chinese, since it always was a challenge to get people fluent in other languages?"

She noted that successful programs build a sequence of classes. But the 17 students taking Mandarin at Ferrell this year don't have a high school where they can keep studying the language. Hillsborough aims to expand into the higher grade levels in the future.

And some students underestimated the amount of work that would be required.

"It's a lot harder than I expected," said Tiffany Drake, an eighth-grader who still thinks the chance to study Mandarin is worth the two-hour bus ride to Ferrell, a magnet school for language exploration.

Wang, her teacher, also has encountered surprises in the program's first year.

In his native China, teachers dominate the classroom. At Ferrell, he found that students expect an active teaching style. He has to use games to engage them rather than lectures.

"In my culture, to learn is not a funny thing," said Wang, who taught English at the college level in China. "The greatest challenge is American kids."

For Hillsborough, the difficulty lies in finding teachers like Wang, who are in short supply.

Technology can fill some of the gaps. Ferrell offers languages like Hindi, Japanese and Portuguese through computer software in a language lab.

The middle school Mandarin classes being developed for next year will feature a mix of technology-based instruction and live teaching. Hillsborough has contracted with a consultant to help develop the concept, which may feature two rotating teachers.

Mandarin is just the start. Hillsborough school officials hope to expand offerings in Japanese and Portuguese, and perhaps add Arabic one day.

They also want to enhance instruction in commonly taught languages like Spanish, the most popular offering today in Hillsborough. With a growing Hispanic population in Florida, Spanish is likely to remain vital.

So Hillsborough is considering another program like one at Alexander Elementary, where students learn in both Spanish and English.

Ultimately, the district's foreign language office wants every middle school to teach a foreign language, and more exploration in elementary classrooms.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 226-3400.

[Last modified November 24, 2006, 00:58:41]


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