Chinese latest trend in language education
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Feb. 17, 2005

Maya Suryaraman

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Move over French and Spanish. Chinese is emerging as a popular high school course offering.

And if you want to know what’s driving the demand, ask Jason Lee, a Korean-American sophomore at Cupertino, Calif.’s Monta Vista High School.

"Later on, China will have a good business potential — it will help me if I can actually speak with Chinese people," said Jason, a second-year Chinese student.

Much as Japanese classes began popping up in the nation’s high schools in the late ‘80s, Chinese courses are starting to catch on now. And given Silicon Valley, Calif.’s web of connections to the Pacific Rim, it’s no surprise that students here are out in front on this trend.

In Santa Clara County, Calif., enrollment in Chinese classes has quadrupled in the last five years to 466 students. Five high schools in Cupertino, Sunnyvale and Saratoga offered courses this year, up from two schools five years ago. The Fremont Union High School District is considering adding another class: advanced Chinese 5. In Alameda County, Calif., and San Francisco, 16 public school campuses had programs last year, up from four in 1998-99.

Elsewhere in the nation, Chinese is debuting in high schools from West Virginia to Oklahoma.

"It’s definitely taking off," said Vivien Stewart, vice president for education for the New York-based Asia Society.

And observers expect enrollment in Chinese classes here and around the country to rise even more once the College Board rolls out its advanced-placement exams in Chinese in 2007. Students are attracted to courses for which advanced-placed tests exist because they see a chance to impress college admissions officers and earn college credit.

Fueling the growth is a recognition that China could soon be a global economic power second only to the United States. In cities such as Cupertino — with large numbers of immigrants from Taiwan and mainland China — students want to gain fluency speaking, reading and writing in their parents’ language.

Enrollment is still minuscule compared with Spanish. In 2000, the last year for which data is available, fewer than 50,000 U.S. high school students were enrolled in Chinese and other, less popular languages, compared with more than 4 million in Spanish, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Over the next two years, the College Board will also introduce advanced-placement tests in Japanese and Italian. But high schools appear to be most enthusiastic about the Chinese exam. In a recent survey, 2,400 campuses told the College Board they wanted to add advanced-placement Chinese, while about 400 schools picked Italian or Japanese.

"We were surprised," said Trevor Packer, executive director of advanced-placement programs for the College Board. "There is tremendous interest."

In Santa Clara County, the Fremont Union High School District has been offering Chinese courses for at least five years. Now, four of the district’s five campuses — all but Lynbrook High School in San Jose — offer the language. "Chinese-Americans are just a key part of our community," said Polly Bove, the district’s deputy superintendent.

At Monta Vista, where more than 60 percent of students are of Asian descent, students can take four years of Mandarin, the most popular Chinese dialect. Recently, teacher Kathy Wang’s classroom was bedecked with hundreds of red envelopes in celebration of Chinese New Year. Students tried their hand at Chinese calligraphy, brush painting and knot-making.

Among the students sampling the various Chinese arts was freshman Jeffrey Chuc, the son of immigrants from mainland China. When he was an elementary school student, his parents sent him to one of the area’s many private Chinese schools for after-school instruction.

"I didn’t really get it," Jeffrey said. "It was kind of weird — I understood everything but sometimes I couldn’t reply. I didn’t know what words to say." Jeffrey is hoping the classes he’s taking at Monta Vista will boost his limited conversational ability and enable him to read and write Chinese.

"When we go to Chinatown or to restaurants and my parents are talking to people, I want to be able to understand," Jeffrey said.

Like Jeffrey, most of Wang’s students are of Chinese descent.

"The others think maybe French or Spanish would be easier," Wang said, adding that the tonal nature of Chinese and the complex script can be a challenge.

Stewart of the Asia Society said that as American high schools try to meet the demand for Chinese instruction, finding credentialed teachers will be a major challenge.

"The interest is there," Stewart said. "But the lack of teachers is a big bottleneck."

As for the perception that Chinese is too difficult to learn, she said that will change as programs mature.

"It takes awhile for people to decide they will try a new language instead of something more commonly taught like Spanish or French," she said.