Schools add Chinese to language offerings

Pinellas County will start this fall in Palm Harbor while Pasco studies the idea.

Published April 28, 2007

The rise of the "middle kingdom" has been plain to see for years.

China's gross domestic product has quadrupled since 1978, part of an economic tiger that has made Asia a chief trading partner with the United States.

Yet one side of the partnership is not preparing for the future. More than half of China's students now learn English while American educators still focus on European languages, primarily Spanish and French.

But that is beginning to change, and Pinellas is joining a small but growing number of U.S. public school districts adding Mandarin Chinese.

The district plans to offer Chinese starting in August at Safety Harbor Middle School, which will serve as an incubator and a possible launch pad to Chinese programs at other schools. The district is conducting interviews for an instructor to teach three periods of Chinese language to 62 seventh-graders, said principal Alison Kennedy.

Kennedy said she and her husband, Ward Kennedy, principal at Palm Harbor Middle School, began talking about the importance of Chinese in the summer. They later e-mailed the district's world languages supervisor, Jan Kucerik, who was receptive.

"I was surprised, " Kennedy said of the positive response. "She said, 'Maybe this is something we need to get going.' "

In January, Kennedy sent out a survey to the homes of 400 Safety Harbor sixth-graders asking if they would be interested in a Chinese language program or would like more information about it. More than 170 responded positively.

"Honestly, we never really gave it a second thought until we got a letter from the school, " said Michelle Hiley, whose son Mack is a sixth-grader at Safety Harbor.

She said the family began to research the language and discovered how widely it is spoken. They also found information about China's role in the world economy and research suggesting that kids who take Chinese do well in other subjects.

Now, Hiley said, "Mack is really excited about it." The family is hoping he is one of the students chosen for the program.

As with other languages, students who take two years of Chinese in middle school will earn one of the two high school foreign language credits they will need to graduate.

Eight of Florida's 11 public universities offer Chinese language courses, though some programs are more extensive than others.

Pinellas plans to establish a high school Chinese program within two years so middle school students will have a place to continue their studies. It would likely be a north county high school, said Kucerik, who will travel to Beijing this summer to learn more about teaching the language to American students.

Independent of the north county plans, officials at Boca Ciega High in Gulfport are exploring the possibility of adding Chinese for the 2008-09 school year, said assistant principal Charles Drake.

Neither students nor parents have shown a demand for it, but Drake says the school could develop one.

"You look at the world economy and see China being such a major player, and that doesn't seem to be slowing down, " he said. "I know there's a need for it."

If a program were started, "we'd go into it slowly and build it, " Drake said. "We're always looking for something that's different, that's special, that can attract the best and brightest."

Adding Chinese is part of a broader movement among educators to better prepare U.S. middle and high school students for a world of global markets.

Chinese easily tops most rankings of the world's most widely used languages, with estimates of about 1-billion speakers, more than twice the number who speak English.

It is the second-most-used language on the Internet, behind English, and one of a handful of languages more Americans need to learn, according to the State Department, which cites national security concerns.

As recently as 2004, there were no Chinese language programs in Florida public schools, reports the state Department of Education.

Since then, the Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach school systems have started high school programs.

Hillsborough began offering Chinese at Ferrell Middle Magnet School in Tampa and will add it in three more middle schools in August. Pasco is looking into starting a Chinese program in an elementary school.

In February, Duval County public schools announced the start of a Chinese program at a middle school and high school.

It's the kind of talk that pleases Shuhan Wang, executive director for Chinese language initiatives at Asia Society, a group based in New York that works to improve relations between Asians and Americans.

Wang co-authored a 2005 report that set a goal of having 5 percent of U.S. high school students studying Chinese by 2015. That's about 750, 000 students, nearly four times the number who now study the language in college and all other grades.

First, the report said, the United States must develop a stronger pipeline of Chinese teachers and move beyond offering the language primarily at the college level.

"Today's economic and national security challenges mandate a larger pool of highly proficient speakers of a wider range of world languages, including Chinese, " the report said.

It called Chinese "a language that we as a nation can no longer ignore."

Wang said in an interview that without more Chinese speakers, the United States will have trouble communicating with its trading partner, especially in understanding cultural nuances.

"The problem is that people understand us but we don't comprehend them at all, so we are at the mercy of the interpreter, " she said. "There's an old saying: You can buy in your own language, but if you want to sell, you have to sell to people in the language they are speaking."