Chinese, y'all: Mandarin language becomes the new Spanish
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Jan. 29, 2006 12:00 AM

Marlon Manuel
Cox News Service

ATLANTA -- Rylee Jahn's blond locks dangle toward her shoulders as she writes phonetic symbols on her paper. "Oh, so goooood," the substitute teacher singsongs as she walks the aisles between the classroom desks.

That 6-year-old Rylee of Atlanta and her desk mate, 9-year-old Chase Bagwell of the northern Atlanta suburb of Canton, thrive in a pronunciation lesson seems unremarkable until you hear what it's all about.

"Nee jaw shaw mah?" the teacher asks, wanting to know the students' names. "Wah jaw Rylee," the first-grader responds in Mandarin, a dialect of Chinese.

"Nee jaw shaw mah?" the instructor chirpily queries Chase.

"Wah jaw Chase," replies Chase, who's cast aside hockey to make time for Chinese lessons. The one-hour Saturday class demonstrates the growth of China's latest export: language.

Today, the first day of the Chinese New Year, Americans awake to a new dawn of second languages. Spanish once was the inevitable first choice, the tongue for traveling south of the border or conversing with an ever-increasing Hispanic population spilling from the country's urban centers and into its suburban enclaves.

But with China's burgeoning economy influencing everything from low prices at Wal-Mart to the availability of factory and white-collar jobs in the Deep South, the selection American parents are making for their kids is evolving.

Spanish may be practical, but Chinese is chic.

 "They're an emerging superpower," said Rylee's dad, Evan, a construction project manager, who sits in on the class with other parents. "I want to give her every opportunity possible."

Chase sought Chinese classes on his own because he was interested in the culture. His family has invested about $140 for a semester of 16 classes, plus a 90-minute round trip to Chamblee every week. But for his dad, Wayne, the potential impact on future job skills is something he won't ignore.

China overtook France last year as the world's fifth-largest economy and may eclipse the United Kingdom this year as No. 4. Taking note, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee is considering a proposal to allocate $1.3 billion to public schools for teaching Chinese.

"It won't be just another hobby that's dropped," Bagwell said.

A nationwide trend

Rylee and Chase are among the nonnative speakers studying at the Chinese School of Atlanta, which last fall created Mandarin-as-a-second-language classes . The theme repeats across the country.

The Chicago public school system, for instance, has developed over the past six years the country's largest Chinese language program designed to teach Mandarin to Americans. Nearly 3,000 students take the language in 20 elementary and high schools. New York, Philadelphia and Houston are among the cities tracking progress.

In Oregon, the Portland school district and the University of Oregon won a $700,000 grant from the Defense Department for a program that helps students of Mandarin from kindergarten to college, with scholarships offered to those willing to take a college curriculum entirely in Chinese.

Earlier this month, the state Board of Regents approved a major in Chinese language and literature at the University of Georgia and a dual master's degree program in engineering between Georgia Tech and Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Ambition fuels choice

Art. Fashion. Business. All are exploding from the Asian continent. China is in the middle of it all, influencing business decisions about production and demand.

"In terms of ambitious people, Chinese is probably the top choice," said Penny Prime, director of the China Research Center at Kennesaw State University, created in 2001 as a Southern knowledge base for researchers, businesses and governments. "We'll miss the boat if we can't communicate with that part of the world."

Ambition fuels the fire burning under Bob Marcus, who's enrolled his twin boys, kindergartners Daniel and Simon, at the Chinese School of Atlanta.

The 6-year-olds are in their third week, attending a different class than Rylee and Chase.

The first week for the Marcus boys represented a curiosity. The second week was not exactly a boycott, but a challenge.

"They wanted to play," Marcus said.

By Week 3, they'd settled down and listened to the substitute teacher, Shih Yeh.

"We introduce ourselves," she says in English on a recent Saturday. "Nee jaw shaw mah?"

"Wah jaw Daniel," replies the boy in the red sweater vest.

"Very clever," the teacher says in encouraging English. She addresses a novice class, where no child is older than 6. One girl is from China, a 3-year-old adopted by her parents from metro Atlanta.

"Now we are going to make a longer conversation. "Nee how mah?" she asks, meaning, "How are you?"

"Nee how mah," the entire class -- kids and parents -- repeats in unison.

The teacher moves on.

"If I ask, 'How are you?' you say, 'Very well.' If I say, 'Nee how mah?' you answer, 'Wah hen how.'"

She makes the rounds. Everyone gets it right.

"I can't believe you are so clever. So clever."

No guarantees

Cleverness didn't occur to Jonathan Kent.

At Wheeler High School in Marietta, Ga., he wasn't motivated by the allure of China as an octane boost for economic engines. All he wanted was an exotic option. Mandarin was it.

First, he excelled at a correspondence class offered by Brigham Young University, leafing through used textbooks, listening to tapes and sending back recordings of his progress. Last year, he increased his proficiency by spending two months in Beijing as part of a program offered by Princeton University.

The high school senior so far has cataloged about 2,500 characters; the language wields no alphabet as English speakers know it and makes a sharp division between spoken and written elements. Kent's knowledge translates to roughly 4,000 words -- fluent enough to understand the evening newscast.

Mandarin is one of the world's toughest languages for new speakers because it routinely demands rising and falling tones. English speakers use inflection to convey emotion or give context. Chinese uses tones to differentiate words.

A common beginner mistake, said Kent, who's reading "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" in Chinese, is the word for death. With the wrong tone, it can mean the number four. (Alas, fourth-down-and-4 can be life or death.)

What comes across clearly to him in any translation is that he is learning a language in vogue.

"Ninety percent of the time when I asked fellow students why they were studying Chinese, they had some kind of economic motivation," said Kent, who learns alongside native speakers at the Chinese School in Chamblee. "They measure the worthiness by the size of China's economy."

Kent finds pleasure in learning the language itself.

But it's near-term financial promise that excites parents, who are daily inundated by news of Asia gaining outsourced American jobs.

In a recent report by the Chinese government, officials said exports in 2005 hit a record $762 billion, up 28 percent from the previous year. Much of the outflow came from goods manufactured for American companies enticed by cheap Chinese labor.

Cendant, a company that helps businesses relocate employees, notes that Mandarin soon will eclipse Spanish as its No. 2 requested language for training, trailing only English. Clients want their employees conversing directly with native-speaking colleagues, suppliers and manufacturers in China, warmly cultivating relationships that can't be nurtured through translators.

And it's not just breadwinners learning to talk the talk. Spouses and children, who will be navigating the foreign terrain as shoppers, students and residents, need language skills. As relocated Americans move farther inland, they find English is less accessible, said Bettina Anagnostopoulos, Cendant's manager for language products.

"The younger generation  1/8learning Chinese vs. those who don't 3/8 will have an edge, based on the assumption that empirical English will not always be acceptable," Anagnostopoulos said. "If not to become fluent, learning a second language affects your world view. Just having that experience gives you the confidence of really having a global competence."

Kent clings to what the Taiwanese-born headmaster of his immersion class told him: Those who study for economic reasons or with just an eye on cultural influences are inevitably disappointed. Those who are rewarded most are those who do it because they enjoy it.

While 5-year-olds learning Mandarin is hot, there's no guarantee of future dividends.

"I had piano lessons at that age," Kent said. "Right now, I don't play piano."

New year, good luck

Rylee Jahn's dad said his daughter will take Chinese "as long as she's enjoying it."

The elementary-schooler juggles her gymnastics class along with listening to Mandarin recordings three times a week.

"It seems when you first learn it, there's a lot of hard words," Rylee said. "Once you get to know it, it seems easy."

As Rylee's class wraps up on a recent Saturday, the teacher tells them about the Chinese New Year, the year of the dog, according to the Chinese zodiac.

It's a New Year's tradition, she tells the class, that Chinese parents present their kids with red envelopes or red packages of money. Red signifies good luck, she said, getting good grades, being a good boy or girl and growing up another year.

In the end, will these kids end up collecting a life's fortune for their study of Chinese? Will they tell their parents and Mandarin teachers thank you -- sheh sheh -- for their foresight?

Only time will tell if there's a payoff, perhaps by Feb. 16, 2018, the next time the year of the dog rolls around.

Marlon Manuel writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: mmanuel AT