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Lost in Translation

Fewer than 50,000 American students study Chinese, compared to 200 million Chinese students studying

In 2002, the Chinese American International School, a private preK-8 school in San Francisco, cosponsored a one-day workshop for Chinese language teachers from the Bay Area. Most of the 40 teachers who attended came from heritage schools, which are weekend schools for students of Chinese ancestry who want to learn the language and culture of their parents' native land. As of last year, attendance at the annual event has grown to 150 teachers. In March, the Chinese American International School, or CAIS, expanded the workshop into a three-day conference that drew nearly 275 Chinese language teachers, aspiring teachers and administrators across the U.S., not just from heritage schools. "This is more for schools interested in integrating Chinese programs into their curriculum," a testament that the interest is growing, says Megan Conley, CAIS development project manager.

For proponents of Chinese language classes in American K12 schools, these are heady times. The San Francisco conference illustrates the explosive growth in Chinese instruction nationwide. More schools are preparing for what they hope will soon be their own new programs. And teacher and student exchange programs are on the rise.

Let's Talk Business

Chinese is the native tongue of the world's most populous nation, spoken by an estimated 1.5 billion people worldwide. Most American schools teach the Mandarin dialect, the official language of China.

According to the International Monetary Fund, from 1980 to 2006 China's gross domestic product grew at an annual average increase of nearly 10 percent. Comparably, the GDP in India, another economic contender, grew by nearly 6 percent.

"The push for Chinese, whether you're in Massachusetts, Illinois or California, came inevitably from the parents, who had the same vision as we did, that China is one-fourth of the world, and we need to learn the language." -Scott McVay, former executive director, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

China's economic power is driving American leaders-in government, business and education-to plead for more Chinese to be taught to a nation of foreign language challenged youth. With China increasingly flexing its economic might, more Americans view with urgency the need to teach young people the language.

Learning the language is about preparing to conduct a dialogue with the nation's future business partners. As with any language, the earlier students start and the longer they stick with it, the more proficient they become. Yu-Lan Lin, the director of world languages for Boston Public Schools, says students who study Chinese through college, particularly those in exchange and immersion programs in China, can reach fluency. "We're encouraging students not only to study the language but to experience the language firsthand," Lin says.

A Foundation to Build On

Much of the recent growth in Chinese language instruction in American schools can be traced to an initiative begun in 1982 by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, which is designed to make society more humane.

Under former executive director Scott McVay, a Princeton University graduate, the Dodge Foundation set out to provide seed money for high schools that wanted to start Mandarin language courses.

McVay sought proposals from hundreds of high-achieving high schools. Over the next decade, Dodge awarded $2.7 million in grants to 60 schools. "The push for Chinese, whether you're in Massachusetts, Illinois or California, came inevitably from the parents, who had the same vision as we did, that China is one-fourth of the world, and we need to learn the language," McVay recalls.

But the foundation's work did not stop with the doling out of grants. McVay insisted that Dodge follow up with the schools and provide teachers with training and materials. The foundation organized summer workshops for teachers at Ohio State University led by the late Ta Tua Ch'en, a Chinese language professor at Princeton; funded the development of a high school textbook called The Chinese Primer; arranged exchange programs that brought Chinese natives to the U.S.; and funded the creation of the Secondary School Chinese Language Center at Princeton University.

The Build Up

Then in 2003, the College Board, the nonprofit agency that administers SAT tests and Advanced Placement programs, announced that it would team with Hanban, the Chinese government agency that promotes the nation's language and culture internationally, to create an Advanced Placement Chinese curriculum. Hanban contributed nearly $1.4 million toward the course.

Although critics of Hanban's role questioned whether an arm of the Chinese government should be involved in an American education program, educators point to the new course as a pivotal move in bringing Chinese into America's academic mainstream. A host of initiatives to promote the teaching of Chinese have since followed.

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, following a meeting of government, business and academic leaders in January 2005, issued recommendations to expand foreign languages in American schools. Later that year, the U.S. Department of Defense announced it would team with the University of Oregon and the 53,000-student Portland Public School District in the first "language pipeline" project, part of the National Security Education Program, which dates to the first President Bush. The Portland project, for which the government has issued $1.7 million in grants over the past two years, is designed to provide a cohesive curriculum for language instruction for students from kindergarten through college.

Portland was chosen in part because it had a well-established Chinese language program. Nine years ago, Portland schools started a Chinese immersion program in kindergarten. The first class enters high school this fall. Under the pipeline project, the district is creating a model that other schools can replicate and sustain, says Michael Bacon, who coordinates immersion programs in Chinese, Japanese and Spanish for Portland public schools. The goal, Bacon says, is to produce students who, by the time they graduate from college, will have superior proficiency in reading, writing and speaking Mandarin Chinese. "The grant was not about starting as many programs as possible," Bacon says. "It was about creating a replicable and sustainable model." This month, working with the U.S. Department of Education and the Asia Society, the district will sponsor a conference for about 100 Chinese language educators across the country to learn how to start and retain good programs.

National Security Language Initiative

In January 2006, President Bush acknowledged the need for more Americans to learn languages deemed vital when he introduced the National Security Language Initiative, which aims to provide $114 million to assist students studying languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Farsi. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, then Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings were assigned to carry out the plan, meaning their departments would oversee teacher recruitment and training, student exchanges, and study abroad programs. (Last fall, Spellings concluded a trip to Asia with a stop in Beijing, where she promoted the U.S. as a destination for Asian scholars and assured her hosts that American students and teachers hoped to increase their visits to China.)

The issue of foreign language study surfaced in the Senate last January 2007, when a Senate subcommittee conducted a hearing titled "Lost in Translation: A Review of the Federal Government's Efforts to Develop a Foreign Language Strategy." Among those invited to testify was Rita Oleksak, president of the ACTFL. "It is a growing reality that American students are losing a competitive edge in the business world because they lack skills in other languages and cultures," Oleksak told the panel. "Increasingly, American business needs employees with these skills not just to conduct business overseas but also to conduct business at home, due to the changing demographics of the U.S. population."

Yet Oleksak, in her testimony before the Senate subcommittee, questioned whether four government agencies could reasonably share the workload, a situation that she considered untenable for creating real change. She called on Congress to create a director of National Language Initiatives to coordinate the steps that were being taken by the different agencies.

"This is the only way we will be able to build our nation's language capabilities and close the language gap that prevents the U.S. from full participation in global interactions and threatens our economic and national security," Oleksak said. As of March, Congress had not acted on her suggestion, and there is no indication it will in the future.

The College Board and Hanban Partner Again

In 2006, the College Board partnered again with Hanban on a five-year plan called the Chinese Language and Culture initiatives. Goals include: to help schools start Chinese language programs, to fill the shortage of qualified teachers, to provide continued teacher training, and to support the publication of Chinese language textbooks. Last summer the College Board, working with an organization of 309 Chinese language teachers known as CLASS, the Chinese Language Association of Secondary-Elementary Schools, brought 400 education leaders on a weeklong tour of China designed to gain enthusiasm and knowledge that they'll need in order to create Chinese programs of their own.

The College Board hopes to take another 800 educators on a similar trip this summer, according to Selena Cantor, director of the College Board's Chinese language initiatives.

In January, 34 native Chinese teachers, screened by the College Board, arrived to teach for up to three years in elementary, middle and high schools in 19 states. Another 100 Chinese teachers are scheduled to arrive this summer.

With the first Chinese language and culture AP exam to be administered next month, Cantor says the College Board is keeping expectations low Some 1,500 high school students will take the exam.

"Many students in the beginning will be students who are either in a school program who have had Chinese for a number of years," Cantor adds, "or Chinese students who have been taking weekend classes."

Catching Up and Catching On

The U.S. is playing a lopsided game of catch-up. Today while some 200 to 250 million Chinese students are learning to speak English, it's estimated that no more than 50,000 precollege students study Chinese in the U.S. Yet even those meager numbers represent a sharp rise. According to a 1992 report by the National Foreign Language Center at Johns Hopkins University, fewer than 1,400 American junior high and high school students were taking Chinese language courses in 1970. By 1990, that figure had grown to nearly 7,400.

Since then, schools have made inroads. The Chicago public school system, for example, has launched the nation's most ambitious effort, reaching 6,000 students and starting in kindergarten. Minnesota's first Chinese immersion school, in which almost all lessons are taught in Chinese, opened last fall in St. Paul.

Syosset Public Schools in New York introduced Chinese for first-graders seven years ago, soon after Superintendent of Schools Carol Hankin read a poster at an airport that stated that Chinese would soon become the most-used language on the Web. Syosset students learn a different language each year from kindergarten (Russian) through fifth grade (Latin). "We find when they get to high school they are very comfortable in different languages," Hankin says. "That fear factor seems to have gone away."

Syosset students learn a different language each year from K-5. "We find when they get to high school they are very comfortable in different languages. That fear factor seems to have gone away." -Carol Hankin, superintendent of schools, Syosset Public Schools, N.Y.

In the 9,500-student Fairfield Public Schools in Connecticut, Chinese classes will start this fall in two high schools. Gary Rosato, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, says the district expects to hire one teacher to start and has allotted slightly more than $70,000 to cover salary, textbooks and professional development. Lin says starting a new program with a single teacher typically costs closer to $100,000, which would cover salary, health insurance and professional development as well as textbooks.

On the opposite extreme, Fairfax County Public Schools in northern Virginia added Chinese, Arabic and Korean about 10 years ago to its foreign language program, which today consists of 11 languages. The diverse student body speaks 100 native languages, says Paula Patrick, coordinator of foreign language instruction. Of its 164,000 K12 students, 45,000 study a foreign language, and of those, 764 are taking Chinese, about 13 times as many as five years ago.

Last fall, the Fairfax district received a $188,000 federal grant, part of the National Security Language Initiative, to help more than 1,500 students studying Arabic and Chinese. The three-year grant will be used in part to hire a new Chinese teacher at Providence Elementary School, where first-graders will study the language this fall, and two new Chinese teachers for high school. The grant will also help pay for Chinese teachers to travel to Beijing this summer for study. "When we first started Chinese in 1996, most of the students filling the classes were heritage speakers, so they had a Chinese background," Patrick says. "But as things changed around the nation and Chinese tended to come to the forefront, we're getting many more non-Chinese students coming into Chinese classes."

The demand to expand Chinese instruction, Patrick says, typically comes not from administrators or teachers, but from the community. "Schools that are selecting Chinese for elementary programs, many of them are parents wanting their children to learn Chinese so that they're prepared for the future," she says. "I find that's a huge shift, even in the past five years."

In 1990, Livingston High School in New Jersey introduced Chinese with one teacher, Lucy Chu Lee. A native of Taiwan who also has lived in Hong Kong, Lee was the only Chinese teacher until this year when the district hired a second teacher for seventh and eighth grades. When she started, Lee had fewer than 30 students. Now she has 100. "We still have a long way to go," she says.

The School That Schools Call On

When American school administrators want to start a Chinese program, many call on CAIS, where student tuition runs from $17,200 to $18,000 a year. Since its first class of four students in 1981, CAIS has become something of an industry standard-bearer. So many teachers, parents and administrators have sought to learn from the school's experience that Andrew Corcoran, head of school, established a formal monthly tour of the school. So far this school year, representatives of more than 100 institutions have visited from as far away as South America and the Philippines. The school also established the Institute for the Teaching of Chinese Language and Culture, which sponsors programs that offer materials and guidance to administrators and teachers starting new programs.

Fairfax County Public Schools in northern Virginia added Chinese, Arabic and Korean about 10 years ago to its foreign language program, which today consists of 11 languages.

Last month's Conference for the Teaching of Chinese Language and Culture, held at the University of California, San Francisco's Mission Bay Conference Center, included workshops that addressed issues that arise in Chinese programs-how teacher candidates can get certified for public schools, how to integrate the study of Chinese culture into the curriculum, and how to keep student interest high once, as Corcoran says, "the bloom goes off." Because Chinese takes longer to master than more traditional foreign languages, students may get frustrated. Corcoran, also executive director of the teaching institute, believes teachers must continue to excite students about the language. "Those of us who have programs," Corcoran says, "have a responsibility to assist those schools that are trying to start up."

Christopher Hann is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.