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Mandarin Chinese: The hottest new language in school

The short teacher with the bamboo-print blouse hands her students a mini-football, basketball and soccer ball and tells them to practice their words. "Don't drop the ball," she jokes.

As the students pass the balls up and down the rows, they count.

San shi si.

San shi wu.

San shi liu.

Thirty-four. Thirty-five. Thirty-six.

"Very good," Jingsi Cheng tells them, first in English and then in Mandarin Chinese.

With every exotic new word they learn, the 23 seventh- and eighth-graders in Mrs. Cheng's first-period Chinese class make the planet a smaller place.

They also offer some observers proof that an American education system often panned as detached from a fast-changing world can become more responsive.

"It's just a great way to teach students in the 21st century," said Thurgood Marshall principal Dallas Jackson. "I want to provide the best, current education we can possibly offer here."

Mrs. Cheng's two classes at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School, offered for the first time this year, are among hundreds cropping up around the country, fueled by awareness of China's growing economic muscle, the demands of parents and the prodding of educators who want schools to offer something fresh and maybe, just maybe, a little more relevant.

When education guru Willard Daggett gives speeches, he often cracks this joke: Why are 1.4-million American kids learning French when India and China are reshaping the world?

The punch line: Because we have so many French teachers.

• • •

Mandarin Chinese is spoken by more than 1-billion people. Yet just a few years ago, it wasn't even an afterthought in U.S. schools.

A national survey in 2000 by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages estimated that 5,000 students were learning Chinese — barely a blip compared to the 4.8-million learning Spanish, and barely more than the 3,300 learning an American Indian tongue.

Today, an informed guess pegs the figure at 50,000, making Chinese far and away the fastest-growing language taught.

"The growth has been substantial," said Steve Ackley, spokesman for the foreign languages council. "Everyone realizes this is a country with whom we are going to have to deal on a business and social and cultural level in the future."

The demand has been so great that it's outstripping the ability of schools to find good teachers. For anyone who wants public schools to change, it's a sobering reminder that even where there is consensus about something in education, things don't get fixed overnight.

"We do have some native speakers of Chinese who are currently in the community who are anxious to get into teaching," said Jan Kucerik, supervisor of K-12 world languages in Pinellas. "But I do anticipate that that pot's going to dry up … unless we get students graduating from the universities."

Pinellas offered Chinese classes for the first time last year, at Safety Harbor Middle School. This year, Thurgood Marshall in St. Petersburg and Clearwater High joined the list. Next year, two or three high schools are likely contenders, including Gibbs, East Lake and Countryside.

Gibbs, in fact, enrolled two classes this year but could not find a teacher willing to work less than part time, said principal Antelia Campbell.

Efforts are under way to get more teachers in the pipeline.

The state Department of Education recently created an expedited certification process for potential Chinese language teachers, Kucerik said. The Confucius Institute at the University of South Florida is working on the issue. And the Chinese government has been aggressive with a teacher exchange program.

Will it be enough to meet demand? Only time will tell.

"We've been through periods like this before," Ackley said, pointing to the hand-wringing over languages that followed the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 and Japan's economic rise in the 1980s. "It is something we've got to learn, that we need to prepare and look down the road."

• • •

Back in Mrs. Cheng's class, a huge map of China is posted next to the U.S. flag. Pandas play in a photo on the wall.

Mrs. Cheng teaches her class the words for family members and then shows off photos of her own family. Some were taken in Tiananmen Square.

She points to a figure, says something in Chinese, and then asks her students to translate.

Di di?

"Your younger brother."

Mei mei?

"Your younger sister."

Ma ma?

"That's your mother."

Cheng, 38, taught English in China for 14 years before moving to the United States last year. In China, she said, nearly every student learns English because "they want to know more about the world." English is a common second or third language in many countries.

Will U.S. students ever be as enthusiastic about learning Chinese? "It will take some time," Cheng said.

But not in her class.

Twins Marisa and Mariah Kaylor, seventh-graders at Thurgood Marshall, visited China two years ago. A driver taught them a few words in Chinese and spurred their interest. Now they see the language as useful.

"We're trading a lot with China," said Marisa, 12. In the future, "you might have to speak with someone who's Chinese."

Eighth-grader Jordan Hunter, 13, signed up for Chinese because she didn't want to take the same classes as everyone else. But now there's a buzz about it.

"They're like, 'Oh, man, I want that.' "

Ron Matus can be reached at or (727) 893-8873.

Mandarin Chinese: The hottest new language in school 09/23/08 [Last modified: Sunday, September 28, 2008 1:49pm]
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