Small start Oregon kindergarten is teaching Mandarin
PORTLAND, Ore. A kindergarten class here is on the front lines of a U.S. government-backed effort to get more students learning Mandarin, a nod to China's emergence as a global superpower of the unfolding century.
So far, the number of students nationwide who take Mandarin is minuscule about 24,000, most of them in high school. That compares with the 3 million or so who study Spanish, the most popular language in the nation's schools, with French and German next.
But a number of urban school districts have launched Mandarin programs, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston and Boston.
In the U.S. Senate, the Foreign Relations Committee is considering a proposal to allocate $1.3 billion to boost Chinese language and culture classes in public school, and China, too, is doing its part, said Michael Levine, education director at The Asia Society in New York City.
China's education ministry has formed partnerships with states including Kentucky and Kansas, as well as the countries of Brazil, Australia and the United Kingdom, to boost teacher exchanges and training.
The Oregon program, though, is the first in the country to track students from kindergarten to college. The school district and the University of Oregon won a $700,000 grant from the Defense Department for the program this fall.
The idea is for students to move from the Portland school system to the university, where scholarships will be offered to students who will take a standard college curriculum taught largely in Chinese. Students can also opt to spend their junior year abroad, studying at Nanjing University in China.
Portland's Woodstock Elementary School is one of the starting points.
In September, most of teacher Shin Yen's 24 students couldn't speak a single word of Mandarin, one of the most difficult languages to learn. But three months later, the students were singing songs in Mandarin, laboriously printing Chinese characters and following Yen's instructions, delivered in Mandarin, with no need for any English translation, jumping up to impersonate trees, mountains and frogs at her command.
Teaching begins slowly, Yen said, with repetition of about 20 to 25 Chinese characters, since Mandarin has no alphabet, just 3,500 base characters that are then combined to form other words. Each year, students learn about 150 characters, she said, via constant repetition and memorization.
By the time they get to fourth grade, students are relatively fluent. Lily Rappaport, 9, said she sometimes dreams in Mandarin, after five years in the program. Being in the program has its disadvantages, she said; her parents can't be much help with her homework, for one.
"I am the only one in my family who really speaks it," she said. "I have to figure it out by myself