Mandarin in demand at local schools
arizona daily star
By Jeff Commings Tucson, Arizona | Published:

Ni hao.

Don't know what that means? By this time next year, a few hundred Tucson students and hundreds of thousands more nationwide might, as Mandarin Chinese makes a major entrance into the nation's schools, including four in Tucson.
Quicker than you can say the above greeting "hello," in the language spoken by more than a billion people worldwide Mandarin Chinese has bumped some popular Romance languages off the cool kids' table in the lunchroom.
Three schools in Tucson Unified School District Palo Verde High Magnet School, University High School and Rincon High School are prepping for their first year teaching the major Chinese language. And students in seventh through ninth grades at BASIS charter school in Tucson will learn the language. Also, the College Board just added Mandarin as one of its four new foreign-language Advanced Placement tests.
"It's the fastest-growing language right now," said Carolyn McGarvey, director of BASIS Tucson, 3825 E. Second St. "I was just at an education conference, and Mandarin was all they were talking about."
TUSD officials talked to the high school principals in the district, trying to gauge the interest in adding the class.
"We thought we were going to have to twist some arms," said Kelly Langford, the district's senior academic officer. "But every principal said they wanted it. They realized this is a language our kids need to learn."
Langford said the world is getting smaller, and as such, it's hard for students to find well-paying careers today that don't require some type of foreign-language knowledge. He said most business people travel to China, the world's most populous country, without knowing a word of Mandarin, while most Chinese have a decent grasp of the English language.
"We have it backwards here," he said.
Mandarin is the most-spoken language worldwide, followed far behind by English, Hindu and Spanish.
Some say students can learn to speak the language quickly. But with about 80,000 characters that do not translate well into English and vice versa, educators say American students might not be able to grasp many more than 250 of them.
"After two years, the goal is to be able to order food at a Chinese restaurant," said Maria Hooker, TUSD's director of Pan-Asian studies.
About 100 students at the three TUSD schools have signed up so far to study Mandarin, but that number could increase when students register for school next month, Hooker said.
Leilani Henry, an incoming senior at Catalina Foothills High School, said a Mandarin Chinese class would be popular at her school, where only French and Spanish are available. She said she'd take the class because she's half-Chinese and doesn't know how to speak the language.
"My grandmother can speak it, but she speaks really fast," said Henry, 17. "I can't catch a single thing."
But for all the apparent student interest, one major obstacle is finding qualified teachers. Langford said TUSD is having trouble finding a candidate certified to teach the language, a requirement of No Child Left Behind.
In a couple of years, it's expected that some of the students, especially those at high-achieving University High, will be ready to take the Advanced Placement class, which will be equal to a second-year course in a four-year university.
At BASIS, some students start preparing for AP classes in seventh or eighth grade, and are required to take at least one in high school. Almost 90 percent of them earn college credit.
So far, 2,396 of the 14,000 high schools nationwide that have at least one AP course have expressed interest in the Mandarin class. The three other new foreign languages to be introduced soon Italian, Japanese and Russian each have fewer than 300 schools interested.
"We expected 300 schools (to ask for Mandarin)," said Tom Matts, director of the College Board's world language initiative.
Though these are the first public schools in Tucson to offer Mandarin instruction, the idea is not new to Arizona.
The Tucson Chinese School teaches Mandarin to children as young as 4, and many adults can be found learning the language at various sites in town.
The International School of Tucson, a private school at 1730 N. First Ave., finished its first year with preschoolers learning Mandarin basics from a Chinese emigrant.
The BASIS school in Scottsdale has taught Mandarin to middle school students for two years, and so far, one-third of the students there are enrolled.
TUSD's Langford said the district's and the community's support of adding Mandarin means a policy requiring foreign-language instruction is not far away.
"Every kid who wants to go to a Tier 1 university will need to take a foreign language," he said. "Our vision is that every kid will be prepared to go to a major university."
Only Catalina Foothills and Flowing Wells require at least one year of foreign-language instruction in high schools. In Sunnyside, that requirement will start in the fall for the Class of 2008.
For comparison, consider that British public schools now require all students to study Mandarin.
But small steps could make a huge difference, educators say.
"It is an interesting intellectual exercise," Block said. "We hope to have more schools join us in teaching Chinese because if you're doing business around the world, you can get away with English anywhere, except Asia."
● Contact reporter Jeff Commings at 573-4191 or at