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Sunday, 24 March 2013

Mandarin mania in America

With China’s fast expanding role as a global player, schools in the United States are initiating Chinese “immersion” programmes for its students.
Eager hands: Students raise their hands during a Chinese language lesson. — AFP
SHE arrived in California from Taiwan as a 16-year-old but wasn’t able to speak in English. Now, at 49, Susan Wang heads a school offering children in the United States a similar experience, plunging them into a “Chinese world”.

And her establishment is part of a rapid expansion of Chinese language “immersion” programmes in the United States, helped notably by Beijing, which is providing low-cost native-speaker teachers to cash-strapped US schools.

Pupils as young as five at her Broadway Elementary School in Venice, west of Los Angeles, take classes entirely in Chinese, in a project so successful that it will be moving into new premises soon.

“The single most exciting thing has to be watching the kids learn Mandarin, and how they learn, and how fast they pick up another language, it’s just amazing,” she said taking a break from her busy day at the local school.

“I didn’t speak English when I came to the US, so when it comes to dual language and language learning ... it’s something close to my heart,” she added.

Chinese immersion programmes are not new in American schools. But China’s rapidly expanding world role has fuelled growing demand for Mandarin language skills, mirroring Washington’s diplomatic pivot across the Pacific.

Mandarin teaching has expanded nationwide over the last decade, in contrast to other foreign languages which have steadily decreased, according to data compiled by the Centre for Applied Linguistics (CAL).
“Mandarin is really taking off ... Chinese is one of the few languages that is becoming increasingly popular, while most other language offerings have not “grown” as much including French, German, and Japanese,” said Nancy Rhodes of the Washington DC-based CAL.

Beijing’s Education Ministry is also helping by sending native speaker teachers effectively for free to work in US schools.

“Schools are of course experiencing huge budget cuts, so the offer of free or low-cost native-speaker teachers from China to teach language classes really looks good,” said Rhodes.

California has been in the forefront, both geographically and historically, ever since huge numbers of Chinese workers helped build the US railroad system. San Francisco and Los Angeles have the biggest Chinese communities after New York.

Traditionally, families with one or both parents from Chinese backgrounds have put children into Mandarin-language schools to bolster their cultural “heritage,” or ability to communicate with grandparents back home.

But increasingly, parents cite economic and career-prospect reasons for making sure that their offspring are able to speak in Chinese.

“I wanted them to have the opportunity to be able to leave the United States if they wished to go and seek employment somewhere else,” said Julie Wang, an Australian who came to the United States when she was 25.

“I did that myself ... I came out here. I think it’s a great opportunity for them to experience different cultures, different ways of life, not just the one that they grew up in,” she added.

In the classroom, the linguistic immersion is total. The walls are plastered with pictures and signs entirely in Chinese and so are the text books, and the teacher will not accept a word of English.

And while some children have a Chinese parent or grandparents, the eager faces around the room are from all backgrounds, from African American and white Caucasian to Latino youngsters.

Many don’t speak a word of Mandarin when they arrive. “At the beginning, it is difficult,” said kindergarten teacher Carol Chan, adding that at first, she had to use a lot of gestures, visual aids and games.

“I use a lot of pictures and ... a lot of music. It is difficult because they don’t understand a word I’m saying. But through physical language and gestures, they really catch on. And they’re having fun with me too!”

First-grader Grace Ehlers says it was tough at first, but now she is equally confident in both languages.

“It’s the same, or maybe a little bit easier in Chinese because my dad speaks many languages and sometimes he teaches me a little bit of it,” she said, when asked to compare classes in English and Mandarin.

The school’s principal says the availability of free Chinese teachers was crucial to Broadway Elementary’s decision to offer the Mandarin language immersion programme.

“I am Chinese, born and raised in Taiwan. But that has nothing to do with why I’m here doing this programme

“The Chinese volunteer teachers were what we were able to get. Had we been able to get free French teachers, or free Spanish teachers, we’d be teaching those,” she added.

According to the centre, there were 74 Mandarin language immersion programmes in the United States in 2008, the last time the data was updated. “I do know that there are more programmes not yet listed,” said Rhodes.

Overall, Spanish has the most immersion programmes, with 45% of the total, followed by French (22%), Mandarin (13%) and Hawaiian, Japanese and German.

“In the past, Chinese has traditionally been taught more on the West Coast and in major cities but we’re seeing more Chinese programmes cropping up all over the country now,” she said.

“Even smaller districts that we work with ... that are starting up elementary school language programmes are considering switching between Spanish and Chinese,” she said, adding that the expansion will likely continue.
“I don’t see the trend slowing anytime soon,” said Rhodes.


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