Bursting in from recess, 15 children take their seats and face the woman they know as Teacher Yang.
"What day is this?" she asks, in Mandarin Chinese.
"Confucius' birthday!" the fifth-graders shout in Chinese.
"Why do we celebrate Confucius' birthday?"
"Because he's the greatest teacher in the history of China!" exclaims a brown-haired girl with decidedly European features. She too is speaking Mandarin.
Two children learn Chinese characters at a US school.
English is rarely heard in Lisa Yang's class at the Chinese American International School, despite the fact that few students are native speakers of Mandarin and fewer than half come from families with Chinese ancestry. At a time when the US is frantically trying to increase the ranks of students in "critical languages" such as Mandarin, students here are ahead of the curve - way ahead.
Founded 25 years ago, this small private school in San Francisco's Hayes Valley does what few other American schools do: It produces fully fluent speakers of Mandarin Chinese, by far the most commonly spoken language in the world.
"In the early days - probably up until 10 years ago - we were considered experimental, kind of 'out there,' " said Betty Shon, head of finance for the school, which runs from preschool through eighth grade. "I'd get questions like, 'What kind of parents want their kids to learn Chinese?' Now, there's just no question. We get families who relocate to the Bay Area just so their kids can go to the school."
Mandarin Chinese, the official language of the People's Republic of China and the most common of numerous Chinese dialects, is suddenly hot in American schools. With China poised to become the world's leading economy sometime this century, public and private schools are scrambling to add Mandarin to their roster of foreign languages or expand Chinese programs already in place. By some estimates, as many as 50,000 children nationwide are taking Mandarin in school.
"I think we would have to characterize what's happening with the expansion of Chinese programs right now as an explosion," said Marty Abbott, director of education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
"It really is almost unprecedented…. People are looking at China as a force to be reckoned with…. And to ensure that the US has the ability to conduct trade, to sell our goods, and to work with the Chinese, certainly having an understanding of Chinese language and culture is an advantage."
The drive to develop Chinese-language programs has not been without its bumps. A shortage of trained, credentialed teachers has made it difficult for some schools to join the race. (With some exceptions, public schools require teachers to be credentialed, while private schools do not.) When schools do get teachers, they often recruit them straight from China - a recipe for a cacophonous culture clash.
Robert Liu, who taught in China before coming to Venice High School, remembers his first two years in an American classroom with the benefit of hindsight. It was not an easy adjustment, he said. In China, "respect is the No. 1 thing. Students respect their teachers," he said. Liu found a different paradigm here, where respect must be earned and teachers spend much of their time maintaining order.
"You have to quiet them down and find different activities to attract them or they will lose attention," he said.
Liu stuck it out and revamped his teaching style, and Venice supported him (although a few of his students complain that his teaching style is still a bit too static for their taste). But plenty of Chinese teachers wash out after their first year, leaving behind bewildered students and chastened administrators.
The Chinese American International School, which is known familiarly by its abbreviation, CAIS, has avoided many of the problems with foreign teaching styles by insisting that teachers who come from China, no matter how experienced, work as teachers aides before they get a classroom of their own.
It also helps that class sizes at CAIS are small — the largest have 20 students, and most have fewer. Of course, all of this comes at a price: Tuition is US$17,200 to US$18,000 a year. Nearly a quarter of the student body receives some financial aid.
Spreading the words
With his school's success as a model, CAIS headmaster Andrew Corcoran has been working with the Chinese government to improve training of teachers who are sent to the US. Many come as part of a Chinese government program called Hanban, which is sort of a cross between the Peace Corps and Teach for America, the volunteer teacher program. Hanban sends Mandarin teachers throughout the world and pays their salaries as they share their knowledge of Chinese language and culture.
Corcoran said that of 30 Hanban teachers sent to the US last year, 27 went home without having their contracts renewed for a second year. Their teaching style was too out of sync with American culture. "They've never worked in a place where they didn't stand on a podium in front of 60 or 70 students," Corcoran said. "My fear is that if these teachers are not successful, then the support for teaching Chinese will wane, because people will say, 'Well, we tried it but it didn't work.' "
Corcoran said Hanban officials were sufficiently concerned to invite him last summer to China, where he helped train this year's class of America-bound teachers.
A Hanban official confirmed that American educators were sought to help with training, but otherwise disputed Corcoran's account. In an e-mail from Beijing, Zhou Jie, who is in charge of US volunteers, insisted that there had not been "any bad feedback" from either the teachers or their American host schools. She said that only seven teachers had been dispatched to the US in 2005, and four of them were retained for another year. Forty-one volunteers have been sent so far this year, and about 60 more will be coming, Zhou said. The volunteers "are of high adaptability and (have a) strong sense of responsibility," she said.
Still, to the extent that there are problems, they are the problems of success - too much, too fast.
There is no definitive accounting of the number of Mandarin programs in American schools. But the Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages estimates that the number of students in Mandarin classes in public secondary schools has risen from about 5,000 six years ago to as many as 50,000 today, a tenfold increase. The US Department of Education puts the number at about half that.
Whichever is correct, the number is expected to continue rising. Pressure and encouragement are coming from far-flung sources, including the White House, the Chinese government and the College Board, which is offering an Advanced Placement test in Mandarin for the first time next year.
In January, President Bush proposed US$57 million in federal spending to encourage the teaching of languages considered critical to national security, including Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean. In announcing the plan, the administration noted that, in contrast to the relatively paltry number of Americans learning Mandarin, "more than 200 million children in China are studying English."
Spanish heads the class
Today, 85% of the foreign-language enrollment in the US is in Spanish, according to Abbott, of the Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Next comes French, followed by a smattering of Italian and German. Russian, Japanese and Mandarin trail.
Parental pressure helped push Chicago to launch the largest Chinese-language program in the US - classes in 28 schools that reach 6,000 students from kindergarten to 12th grade. "We're so lucky to have parents who are going to fight for this," said Bob Davis, director of Chinese-language instruction for the Chicago Public Schools.
And when Mark Brooks, director of the private Pilgrim School in Los Angeles, proposed making Mandarin a required course for all seventh-graders this year, parents embraced it. "We're trying to give educations to children for jobs that haven't even been created yet…. Parents get that."
Still, Chinese classes have a distinctly regional cast. Chicago has the most ambitious program, although Portland, Ore., has announced plans for a Mandarin program that would take children from kindergarten through college. The Bay Area, with its large, deeply rooted Chinese American population, is another leader.
Aside from the Chinese immigrant communities in the San Gabriel Valley, Southern California has generally lagged. The Los Angeles Unified School District offers Mandarin at two of its 60 high schools.
Gay Yuen, a professor of education at Cal State L.A., runs a program that grants credentials to Mandarin teachers and has been working with schools to encourage the expansion of Chinese instruction. She has been frustrated by the relative lack of interest.
"I think there's still a lot of conservatism in our area," Yuen said.
There wasn't a lot of interest in Mandarin in San Francisco, either, when CAIS was founded in September 1981 by a former San Francisco County supervisor, Carol Ruth Silver. She had adopted a child from Taiwan and realized there was nowhere he could attend school in his native language. The first class had four students and one teacher.
Today, roughly 400 children are enrolled. The school teaches half the day in English and half in Chinese, and from preschool on, students in the Chinese classes hear only Mandarin from their teachers. Students learn subjects such as math, science and social studies in both languages.
One of the biggest problems students face is what to do after they leave CAIS, since their Chinese abilities are beyond those of the most advanced high school classes. Some attend after-school classes at CAIS; others move on to other languages but often return to Chinese in college.
Mandarin, with its lack of a phonetic alphabet and thousands of distinct characters, is considered a relatively difficult language to learn. But "if it's hard, they don't know it's hard," said Christie Chessen, who has a daughter in second grade and a son in kindergarten at CAIS. She speaks no Chinese herself. Her children's idea of fun, she said, is to practice writing Chinese characters. She constantly finds herself thinking, "Oh my God, my kid is doing something that I will never in my lifetime be able to do."
(CRI via The Los Angeles Times November 27, 2006)