Chinese Aid Boosts Mandarin-Language Instruction in U.S.

October 05, 2010 8 min read
Eighth grader Joshua Chee answers questions in Chinese during Chinese-language class at Herricks Middle School in Albertson, N.Y. as teacher Elizabeth Yu Ellsworth listens.
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With China’s growing power and influence on the global stage, efforts are burgeoning to promote teaching the official Chinese language in U.S. schools. And while those activities are getting help from a variety of sources—including the U.S. government—one key player taking an increased role is the Chinese government itself.

Just this year, the Office of Chinese Language Council International—or Hanban, an affiliate of China’s Ministry of Education—committed millions of dollars to help launch several ventures with U.S. schools, including a program in North Carolina to offer Mandarin Chinese classes in 45 public schools and the development of a national network of 100 “exemplary” Chinese-language programs at the K-12 level.

“It’s a great opportunity,” William C. Harrison, who chairs the North Carolina state board of education, said of his state’s program, to which China is expected to supply more than $5 million in direct aid and “in kind” services. “The best way to become globally competitive is to develop an understanding of those with whom you compete, being able to communicate with them, and being able to collaborate with them.”

He added: “We’re looking at the number-two economy in the world with prospects to be number one. ... I think it’s in our best interest to develop positive relationships.”

As school districts grapple with tough financial straits, the money from China for the most part appears to be getting a welcome reception in local schools and communities. One prominent exception is in the 21,000-student Hacienda La Puente school district in Southern California, where some critics, including the former superintendent, have pushed hard against accepting resources from what they see as a repressive government looking to promote “propaganda” about its country and culture.

That dust-up caught the notice of Chester E. Finn Jr., a former education official in the Reagan administration and the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank. He argues that public schools should not accept aid from the Chinese government.

“This is not an ally. This is the country on the planet from which the United States faces the largest and most worrisome long-term threats,” he said. “And for its government to be funding our schools to teach its language, I think, is an alarming and menacing development. And that our schools are welcoming this development strikes me as outrageous.”

Hanban officials were not available to comment for this story.

‘Hearts and Minds’

Experts on foreign-language instruction say there’s a long history of governments’ promoting the study of their language and culture in this country, including with support for public schools and educators here.

Martha G. Abbott, the director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, based in Alexandria, Va., said Hanban’s efforts call to mind support provided by Japan in the 1980s as interest grew in that language. Similar assistance has long come from France, Germany, and other nations through their embassies and other organizations, such as Germany’s Goethe Institute.

“It’s really not anything new. It’s just the current focus on China,” said Ms. Abbott. What is striking, she said, is the amount of resources China is bringing to bear: “It is pretty vast.”

Shuhan C. Wang, the deputy director of the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland College Park, said many nations see such work as a wise investment.

“Language and culture speak to the hearts and minds of people,” she said. “It’s people diplomacy.”

A key motive for China’s government, she added, is to promote Mandarin Chinese as a “global language,” and thereby enhance the country’s stature in the world.

Chinese-language teacher Elizabeth Yu Ellsworth works with her 8th grade class at Herricks Middle School in Albertson, N.Y. The school's program is part of a recent surge in Mandarin instruction.

Ms. Wang and others note that the U.S. government itself has identified Chinese as among a list of undertaught languages viewed as critical to U.S. national security. In fact, her center administers the federal STARTALK program, launched by President George W. Bush in 2006. It provided about $20 million this year for K-16 summer programs for teachers and students in “critical need” languages, including Chinese. More than half of that money was for Chinese-language programs, she said.

Instruction in Chinese in U.S. schools is still scarce compared with that of some other languages, but it’s rising fast.

A report issued last year by the Center for Applied Statistics at Washington University in St. Louis found that Chinese was being taught in 4 percent of secondary schools in 2008, up from just 1 percent in 1997. An upcoming study from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages will show that about 60,000 students in U.S. public schools studied Chinese in the 2007-08 academic year, compared with 20,000 in 2004-05, said Ms. Abbott.

China’s work in U.S. education has been going on for some time. In 2003, the College Board announced that China would provide financial backing to develop a new Advanced Placement course in Chinese language and culture. Other activities with the College Board have followed, including the 2007 launch of a guest-teacher program. This fall, 127 teachers from China were placed in U.S. schools under that initiative. Hanban covers the teachers’ travel costs and part of their salaries.

Hanban’s Influence

Hanban since 2004 has worked to support the creation of what it calls Confucius Institutes at universities throughout the world to promote Chinese language and culture. More recently, it developed and is working to expand an initiative called Confucius Classrooms to create or enlarge Mandarin Chinese programs in elementary and secondary schools.

Recent estimates indicate Hanban is supporting more than 300 university-based Confucius Institutes around the globe, and, as of July, 337 Confucius Classroom programs in 98 countries. (No official count of U.S. programs was available.) In some cases, the university institutes are overseeing local Confucius Classroom programs.

The Confucius Classrooms initiative gives schools a small grant—typically $10,000 per year for three years—for learning materials, professional development, and related purposes. Schools also are helped in getting a Chinese guest teacher; the teacher’s salary typically is subsidized up to $30,000 per year by Hanban.

Last year, the Confucius Institute at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities announced plans for 41 public and private schools in that state to participate. China committed nearly $500,000 for the first year of that five-year undertaking.

This year, Confucius institutes at the University of Memphis, in Tennessee, and the University of Texas at Dallas also named schools and districts that would receive support under the program.

Meanwhile, the Asia Society and Hanban in February launched what’s being called the Confucius Classrooms Network.

Christopher M. Livaccari, an associate director at the Asia Society, a New York City-based nonprofit, said the emphasis is not on creating new Chinese programs, but on taking existing ones at U.S. public and private schools to the next level, to make them “successful and sustainable,” as well as to serve as national models. “We want to showcase what is possible.”

Twenty individual schools and districts were selected in February to join the network; 40 more will be announced in coming weeks, toward the ultimate goal of 100.

Member schools and districts receive $10,000 per year over three years to be used for such expenses as professional development and learning materials. They also get access to free instructional resources from Hanban and assistance in finding a partner school in China. In addition, Hanban will help to pay for school staff members to visit China to attend a conference this fall and to visit their partner school.

Lori Langer de Ramirez, who heads up the world-languages department at the 4,000-student Herricks school district in New Hyde Park, N.Y., which is part of the network, said the chief benefit is not so much the financial help but making connections with other schools and educators to share ideas.

“This will really enhance our program,” she said of her district’s participation.

The North Carolina Confucius Classrooms Collaborative, announced in April, is designed to reach 45 public schools in up to 15 districts over three years.

“We have a large need in North Carolina for Chinese-language teachers,” said Matt Friedrick, the director of K-12 programs at the University of North Carolina’s Center for International Understanding, which oversees the program.

China is the state’s fastest-growing trade partner, and its second-largest export market, according to the center.

Mr. Friedrick said his state worked hard to ensure widespread buy-in.

“At every rung in the education ladder, we have people who have been involved in this program,” he said, “from the classroom teacher all the way to our governor.”

Hanban is committing an estimated $5.4 million over five years to the collaborative, Mr. Friedrick said, including direct and in-kind investments. This is about three-fifths of the total cost, he said.

The state and local districts, he said, control what their language programs look like.

Carol P. Ray, the principal of Asheville High School in North Carolina, said that before this year, her students could only study Chinese through an online course.

“Kids are clamoring to get into the classes,” she said. “[The teacher] provides a very hands-on approach to learn about Mandarin Chinese language and culture.”

Mr. Finn from the Fordham Institute suggested that schools may be more inclined to “sugarcoat” discussions of China on issues such as human rights if that country’s government is providing money to the schools.

But Ms. Ray said the money won’t have any such impact in her school.

“I approach this from a perspective of international understanding,” she said. “The more we understand about one another, the greater our chances of world peace.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as China Flexes Linguistic Muscles


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