As China's influence grows, more U.S. schools offer Chinese programs
Associated Press
Mar. 13, 2007

Adam Gorlick
EASTHAMPTON, Mass. - In Alaska, students are calling their teacher "lao shi." In Illinois, they're learning that one plus one equals "er." And in western Massachusetts, kindergarten students who can sing their ABCs will soon start honing Mandarin accents.

As China's economic power grows, Chinese is becoming the new language of the future.

At least 27 states offer Chinese language classes in either elementary, middle or high schools. And at least 12 public and private schools across the country teach most subjects in Mandarin Chinese, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington. "It's about jobs and a world economy," said Richard Alcorn, who with his wife won state approval last month for the first Chinese immersion charter school in Massachusetts.
"There are unbelievable opportunities to do business in China, so there's a need for Americans to learn the language so we're not left out."

Alcorn runs a business importing English versions of Chinese books. He is still looking for a location for the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion School, which is scheduled to open in the fall with a 75 percent of the curriculum to be taught in Chinese.

Some of the push for Chinese instruction is coming from families who want their children to learn the language of their heritage.

"But the major force behind it is coming from parents who don't speak Chinese and want their children to be exposed to it," said Zhining Chin, a coordinator at the Eisenhower Elementary School, a public Chinese immersion school set to open in September in Hopkins, Minn. "They recognize the importance of China as a world power."

Dan O'Shea, of Northampton, is considering sending his 5-year-old daughter to the Pioneer Valley school. "We think that learning to read and write it will help stimulate her brain and make her a better learner," he said.

O'Shea and his wife don't speak Chinese and initially had concerns about helping their daughter with homework. But, he said, school officials assured the couple that parents will get enough support to communicate about lessons and stay involved in school projects.

Shuhan Wang, executive director of Chinese language initiatives for the New York-based Asia Society, said the surge in Chinese language classes started around 2003.

"Anyone who reads the newspaper realizes that you can't ignore Asia anymore," she said. "American education has always been Euro-centric, and now we're realizing how inadequate our perspective on Asia has been."

In the decade following the Cold War, Americans largely maintained their suspicions about the world's most populous country.

"Not too long ago, one thought made in China' meant cheap items that weren't of high quality," said Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Now China is known for "innovation, the cutting edge of technology and an expanding economy."

"Things have changed mightily as China has opened itself up to us," he added.

The federal government distributed about $9 million last year to schools to support efforts to teach Chinese and other "critical languages" such as Arabic, Russian, Hindi and Farsi.

President Bush also announced a separate national security initiative to offer instruction in those languages, but Congress has yet to fund the $114 million program.

"School districts respond to money," Alcorn said. "So it's hard to imagine you're not going to see more Chinese language programs when the money becomes more available."

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