Character Studies

By Ed Finkel — December 22, 2006 2 min read

Thirteen teenagers crowd the blackboard in Haiyan Fu’s Chinese III class at Chicago’s Northside College Preparatory High School. They write phrases in Chinese characters, then spell the words phonetically in the Roman alphabet, and finally translate them into English.

This scene—once a rarity at Northside and across the country—has become increasingly familiar. Only nine students signed up when the newly opened magnet school first offered Chinese in 1999, but Fu now teaches nearly 120.

With China leading the world in population and economic growth, Northside students aren’t the only ones to see opportunity in the planet’s most commonly spoken first language.

In Chicago, 27 public schools teach the language to more than 5,000 students, making it the largest Chinese program in the nation, according to Robert Davis, director of the city’s Confucius Institute, a center for Chinese studies created through a partnership between the school district and the Chinese government.

Video Translation

See Jocelyn Pabst, a 6th grader at Hosford Middle School in Portland, Ore., speak Mandarin Chinese and then translate what she says into English. (From Education Week.)

(QuickTime file: 2.2MB)

New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles also have large numbers of students taking Chinese, says Michael Levine, executive director for education of the Asia Society, an education nonprofit. Programs are cropping up in some less-obvious places, too. In Minnesota, for example, the state legislature approved a $250,000 plan to develop a Chinese curriculum. “We’re hearing from all over the country now,” Levine says.

In a 2004 College Board survey, representatives from 2,400 U.S. high schools said they wanted an advanced placement course in Chinese. By contrast, 238 respondents were interested in Italian, 170 in Japanese, and 50 in Russian. Students will take the first AP Chinese exam this spring.

Finding the right kind of educators may be the biggest hurdle. American colleges and universities produce fewer than two dozen Chinese teachers each year. “Foreign-language instruction is best done by teachers who know the needs of urban and suburban kids here in the U.S.,” Levine says. “How are we going to find these teachers?”

That may be why the language, which federal officials consider critical to diplomacy and national security, hasn’t seen even more rapid growth: Despite recent advances, there are still only 300 to 400 Chinese programs in American schools.

Not everyone believes that teaching Chinese to legions of American schoolchildren is worth the investment, though. With more than 200 million Chinese students learning English, critics say the two countries already have a common tongue. And Chinese takes, on average, three times longer to learn than French or Spanish, according to the Foreign Service Institute, the training center for American diplomats.

To some educators, the bigger question is whether an explosion in Chinese instruction will draw students (and funds) away from other classes. “Languages have tended to be a little bit of a zero-sum game in our country,” Levine says. “Realistically, some [teachers of European languages] should probably start to look at where the market is.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as Character Studies


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