Md. schools join trend, add classes in Chinese

December 25, 2006|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,Sun reporter

Colin Lyman stood in front of his classmates with a color photograph of his family and spoke cautiously as he pointed to each face.

"Baba, mama, didi, yeye, nainai, gege," said the 16-year- old junior at Columbia's Wilde Lake High School, identifying his father, mother, younger brother, grandfather, grandmother and older brother.

His teacher, Wei-chuan Liu, nodded and then broke his momentum with a question in Mandarin Chinese.

"I don't know what you are saying," Colin said, laughing. Still speaking Mandarin Chinese, Liu slowed down and sprinkled in a few more English words, which clicked for Colin. Confidence back, he responded that his younger brother is in ninth grade.

Three months ago Colin couldn't speak a lick of Mandarin. But now he has mastered about 100 of the 30,000 Chinese characters - the logographic symbols at the core of written Chinese - and feels he is on his way to learning a language that will be essential to help him work in the Foreign Service one day.

As China evolves as an economic superpower, more and more students like Colin are trying to learn the language, which is one of the world's oldest, most widely spoken, and arguably most difficult. American educators are responding by taking trips to the Far East, setting up partnerships with sister schools and dreaming up ways to expand language offerings at earlier ages.

"We have a shrinking world," said State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "You are talking about 2.4 billion people. You are talking about an emerging economy. It is going to be an asset for people to speak Chinese."

So far, however, only a handful of school systems in the state have Chinese language courses: Baltimore City and Baltimore, Cecil, Frederick, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. But there is a movement to add the language across the state and to start at an earlier age, which experts say greatly helps achieve proficiency.

Close to 50,000 American students in seventh through 12th grades are taking Chinese language classes, according to a 2006 survey conducted by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language. In 2000, the same Arlington, Va.-based organization found that 5,000 were enrolled.

"It's a huge increase," said Marty Abbott, director of education with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language. "When schools are thinking about new languages to add it is overwhelmingly Chinese."

Despite that rapid growth, it is far from the most popular foreign language selected by American students, and still trails behind Spanish, French and a handful of other languages.

In Maryland, about 1,500 students in the state are enrolled in Chinese language courses last year, according to state education officials. Montgomery County led the way with 1,041 students.

Abbott attributed the increased popularity in Chinese language to China's looming economy and the College Board adding Mandarin Chinese to its Advanced Placement course offerings.

"People are alerted to that and trying to prepare for future when speaking the language and learning the culture will be important," Abbott said.

Students at Dulaney High School in Timonium have embraced Chinese since the school began to offer the class this year. Currently 17 students take the class, according to principal Lyle Patzkowsky.

"I am of the belief that we should begin to prepare students for a world that is much different than when I graduated in 1965," said Patzkowsky. "We now live in a world where they will not only compete for jobs against students from Timonium and Baltimore, but from around the world."

Baltimore Polytechnic High School has offered Chinese language classes since 1988. Currently 100 students take the language - the most in the school's history.

"Certainly our school is preparing students for the technological field, but the influence of Chinese on those areas is huge," said principal Barney Wilson. "For our students to be able to lead, they need to be equipped with languages that are global."

Job candidates who are proficient in more than one language are assets and are in high demand, according to Charles Kolb, president of the Committee of Economic Development, a Washington-based organization of business and civic leaders from around the country.

"As the world becomes more interconnected, more open, more globalized, you will see companies paying more of a premium for that type of talent," said Kolb. "People like that are in huge demand."

Ideally, youth should start to learn Chinese as young as kindergarten in order to eventually speak the language as well as an educated native speaker, said Abbott and other national experts.

"The goal is to have students leave high school with an advanced level proficiency and leave college with a superior level of proficiency," Abbott said.

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