By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
November 19, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO — Martha Rios traces her finger over a vocabulary word
for the first-graders assembled around her. She's volunteering in her
son's sunny classroom at Starr King Elementary School. At their desks,
the children bend over their papers, carefully practicing this week's
Sebastian Rios writes one and is about to move on to the next when his
mother stops him. "Mira," she says in Spanish, pointing out where he's
made a mistake.
Sebastian erases, then rewrites the character. Xin, the Chinese word
for heart, has four strokes, not three. The vocabulary word is kai
xin, or "happy."
It's a scene playing out in more and more classrooms across the
nation: Students — from kindergarten on — learning Mandarin Chinese,
in some cases instead of Spanish, French or other languages that have
long been more popular in U.S. schools. It's partly a reflection of
how parents increasingly see China's emergence as an economic power as
something for which they should prepare their children.
YOUR STORY: Do you send your child to Mandarin classes or would you if
The number of elementary and secondary school students studying
Chinese could be as much as 10 times higher than it was seven years
ago, says Marty Abbott, spokeswoman for the American Council on the
Teaching of Foreign Languages.
When the council surveyed K-12 enrollment in foreign language classes
in 2000, there were about 5,000 students of Chinese, Abbott says. The
council is collecting data for another survey, but Abbott says early
figures suggest the number of students now studying Chinese has "got
to be somewhere around 30,000 to 50,000."
Nationwide, there are Chinese programs in more than 550 elementary,
junior high and senior high schools, a 100% increase in two years,
according to The Asia Society, an educational group. In May, when the
College Board offered Mandarin Advanced Placement exams for the first
time, 3,261 high school students took the test.
At the college level, enrollment in Chinese-language classes has
increased 51% since 2002, according to the Modern Language
Association, a language and literature education organization.
Spanish remains far and away the most popular foreign language for
U.S. students: It's the choice of 80% of those who study a foreign
language in America's grade and high schools, Abbott says. French is a
distant second, with Latin and German vying for third-most-popular
"But I think what's going to surprise everyone in this next survey we
do is how close Mandarin is going to come to Latin and German," she
says. "Chinese isn't the new French — it's the new English," says
Robert Davis, director of the Chinese-language program in Chicago's
public school system, which has 8,000 students studying Mandarin.
"It's not romantic. It's not because you're going to have a great time
in Paris," he says. "It's very pragmatic."
That's the motivation of Martha Rios and her husband, Antonio, for
having Sebastian learn Chinese, and why they moved 80 miles last
summer from Gilroy, Calif., to San Francisco. Sebastian and about 70
other students at Starr King take all but one class a day in Chinese,
one of 25 to 30 such immersion programs nationwide. More widespread
one-hour-a-day language classes in Chinese also are gaining popularity
in schools nationwide.
"My husband read about this program in the newspaper, and we wanted it
for our son," Martha says.
Originally from Mexico, Sebastian's parents believe that if their son
grows up speaking English, Spanish and Chinese, the world will be his
"It's for the future," Martha says. "Our families thought it
marvelous thing. We are using the correct tools for him to succeed."
The Rioses aren't the only family to go to great lengths to take part
in Starr King's immersion program. Another family came 400 miles, from
Orange County, so their three daughters could attend the school.
San Francisco's program is only 2 years old. Starr King, the first of
two schools to offer Mandarin immersion, eventually will have 120
students in kindergarten through fifth grade studying Chinese, says
principal Chris Rosenberg. More want in: "We had 20 parents show up
for the school tour this week."
Students start out spending 90% of their day hearing only Chinese —
reading it, writing it, learning math and science in it. One hour a
day is spent working in English. By the time they finish the fifth
grade, half of their classes are in English and half are in Mandarin,
and they should be able to read, write and speak both languages
That's a skill the Department of Defense is eager for more Americans
to have. It classifies Mandarin as a "critical foreign language" and
in 2007-2008 will put about $10 million into Chinese-language
programs. Such funding historically has been directed to colleges, but
now it's moving into grade schools.
In Portland, Ore., Woodstock Elementary has 200 students in a Mandarin
immersion program; the school won a $700,000 Defense grant this year.
When the Portland program began in 1998, the largest number of
students were girls adopted from China, followed by children from
Chinese-American families. But that has shifted in recent years, with
a larger proportion of students coming from families with no
connection to China.
"If you go to the fifth-grade class and then down to the first and
kindergarten classes," Woodstock principal Mary Patterson says, "you
can really see the difference."
Attracted to a 'world language'
The rising popularity of Mandarin Chinese has been "incredible,"
Cynthia Ning, director of the Chinese Language Teachers Association.
She attributes the interest to communist China's economic boom as it
emerges from decades of isolation, as well as the U.S. economy's
increasing trade with China. China is now the USA's No. 2 trading
partner, behind Canada and ahead of Mexico.
The Mandarin trend began at schools on the East and West coasts but
has spread quickly, Abbott says. "You might think it's mostly in the
high socioeconomic areas, but it's everywhere," she says. "We get
calls from urban schools, from New Hampshire, Maine, Iowa. It's really
In Chicago, black and Latino children fill the Mandarin classes. The
program started small in 1999, with just a few part-time teachers and
Now there are 35 Chicago public schools that offer Mandarin, 22 of
them elementary schools. Another 30 schools are on a waiting list for
Chicago has a fairly large Chinese population, but the push for
Mandarin has come from non-Chinese families who wanted their kids to
learn a "world language," Davis says. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley,
who calls China "Chicago's future," has been a big supporter of the
program, Davis says.
In St. Paul, Yinghua ("English Chinese") Academy opened last year.
the public charter school has 145 students through the fourth grade
studying in Mandarin. Three other school districts in the state,
Minnetonka, Hopkins and St. Cloud, also have launched Mandarin
immersion programs this year.
Thad Ewald of Roseville, Minn., has business connections in China, so
he's seen the need for Americans to speak Chinese. But when his wife,
Erin, heard about the Yinghua Academy, she had another motivation:
"I like that my kids have to turn in their homework on time and really
do the work," Erin Ewald says.
The couple were so impressed with how well their daughter Eibhlin did
in kindergarten last year that they transferred their son Lachlan into
the school's third grade this year.
A reflection of the times
Interest in languages comes and goes. Latin was the sine qua non- from
the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 20th century. French has
always been the language of culture. In the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, German was the choice among those interested in science.
In the 1950s and '60s, Russian gained popularity in colleges as
concerns rose about the Soviet Union. Beginning in the 1970s, Spanish
began to edge out French as the most popular language, a reflection of
Latinos' increasing immigration into the USA. Interest in Japanese
jumped in the 1980s as Japan's economy ascended.
In 1981, the USA's oldest Mandarin immersion elementary school program
was launched. The private Chinese American International School (CAIS)
in San Francisco began with four students; it now has 420 from
preschool through eighth grade.
Interest in it has soared recently, says headmaster Andrew Corcoran.
Despite the school's $18,000 annual tuition, it has seen a 300%
increase in applications during the past three years.
The growth of Mandarin programs is creating a new problem: a lack of
qualified teachers. There are only 10 university programs nationwide
that offer teaching credentials for Mandarin at the grade-school
levels, and most of the programs are new, Ning says.
"I think the next three to five years are going to be really crucial
for this area of study," Corcoran says. "Until three years ago,
teaching Chinese in the United States was not a career. Before that,
you did it at a school like ours, which is rare, or at a weekend or
To help other schools get started, his school set up the CAIS
Institute to offer training in how to develop Chinese language and
Setting up a Chinese-language program is expensive because it means
buying all new instructional materials. But for that there's a lot of
support, both inside the USA and from China.
In 2006, the Foreign Language Assistance Program of the U.S.
Department of Education allocated $6.7 million to Chinese instruction
and an additional $2.4 million in 2007. There also were grants from
the departments of Defense and State, and from various state
government and philanthropic groups.
China also is pushing Chinese as a world language. Its Office of
Chinese Language Council International, universally called Hanban
(literally "Chinese Office"), is in charge of promoting Chinese
worldwide. Part of that effort is creating textbooks and materials for
children and adults, as well as teacher training.
Hanban also helps set up Confucius Institutes, which work to promote
Chinese language, literature and culture, much as Germany's
Goethe-Instituts do for German. There are about 100 Confucius
Institutes around the world and 23 in the USA. The newest opened Sept.
8 in Denver.
In St. Paul, the Ewalds marvel at their children's ability to soak up
a seemingly impossible language. Eibhlin is so comfortable in Chinese
that "she approached a perfect stranger at Disney World this summer
and started a conversation in Mandarin," Erin says.
Her daughter's also reading Chinese, sometimes to her mother's chagrin.
"The other day, we were in a shop, and there was a woman with a
tattoo," Erin says. "Eibhlin wanted to know why she had the word
'milk' tattooed on her arm."