As China's influence grows, more U.S. schools offer Chinese programs
Mar. 13, 2007
EASTHAMPTON, Mass. - In Alaska, students are calling their teacher "lao shi." In
Illinois, they're learning that one plus one equals "er." And in western
Massachusetts, kindergarten students who can sing their ABCs will soon start
honing Mandarin accents.
As China's economic power grows, Chinese is becoming the new language of the
At least 27 states offer Chinese language classes in either elementary, middle
or high schools. And at least 12 public and private schools across the country
teach most subjects in Mandarin Chinese, according to the Center for Applied
Linguistics in Washington. "It's about jobs and a world economy," said Richard
Alcorn, who with his wife won state approval last month for the first Chinese
immersion charter school in Massachusetts.
"There are unbelievable opportunities to do business in China, so there's a need
for Americans to learn the language so we're not left out."
Alcorn runs a business importing English versions of Chinese books. He is still
looking for a location for the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion School, which is
scheduled to open in the fall with a 75 percent of the curriculum to be taught
Some of the push for Chinese instruction is coming from families who want their
children to learn the language of their heritage.
"But the major force behind it is coming from parents who don't speak Chinese
and want their children to be exposed to it," said Zhining Chin, a coordinator
at the Eisenhower Elementary School, a public Chinese immersion school set to
open in September in Hopkins, Minn. "They recognize the importance of China as a
Dan O'Shea, of Northampton, is considering sending his 5-year-old daughter to
the Pioneer Valley school. "We think that learning to read and write it will
help stimulate her brain and make her a better learner," he said.
O'Shea and his wife don't speak Chinese and initially had concerns about helping
their daughter with homework. But, he said, school officials assured the couple
that parents will get enough support to communicate about lessons and stay
involved in school projects.
Shuhan Wang, executive director of Chinese language initiatives for the New
York-based Asia Society, said the surge in Chinese language classes started
"Anyone who reads the newspaper realizes that you can't ignore Asia anymore,"
she said. "American education has always been Euro-centric, and now we're
realizing how inadequate our perspective on Asia has been."
In the decade following the Cold War, Americans largely maintained their
suspicions about the world's most populous country.
"Not too long ago, one thought made in China' meant cheap items that weren't of
high quality," said Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American
Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Now China is known for
"innovation, the cutting edge of technology and an expanding economy."
"Things have changed mightily as China has opened itself up to us," he added.
The federal government distributed about $9 million last year to schools to
support efforts to teach Chinese and other "critical languages" such as Arabic,
Russian, Hindi and Farsi.
President Bush also announced a separate national security initiative to offer
instruction in those languages, but Congress has yet to fund the $114 million
"School districts respond to money," Alcorn said. "So it's hard to imagine
you're not going to see more Chinese language programs when the money becomes
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