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Students catching onto 'cool' China factor
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Due to China's economic and cultural visibility, there has been a rapid increase in enrollment in Chinese courses among public school students, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages says US has seen a rapid increase in enrollment in Chinese courses among public school students.

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages says US has seen a rapid increase in enrollment in Chinese courses among public school students.

The council said there was a 194-percent increase from 20,292 students in 2004 to 58,860 students in 2007. While those numbers still lag far behind the 6 million American students currently enrolled in Spanish and French classes, Chinese courses have experienced the largest jump in enrollment, said Bret Lovejoy, executive director of the council.

"I believe there's been a marked increase in parents and students pushing to take Mandarin because of China's growing influence in the world economy," Lovejoy told China Daily.

Bob Davis, executive director of the Chinese language and culture initiative at the College Board and an organizer of this week's National Chinese Language Conference (NCL) in San Francisco, said that while parents are a large part of the push for more Chinese language courses, the rise of Chinese pop culture has also led to an increase in interest among students themselves.

"China is kind of cool now, and kids like cool. The economics are important, but an 11-year-old is more interested in kungfu, and a movie they've seen, or Chinese cartoons," Davis said.

The rise of Chinese language education has led to an increase in Chinese language teachers. At this year's NCL conference, organizers registered around 1,100 attendees. Co-organized by the College Board and Asia Society in collaboration with the Mandarin Institute, the conference is offering more than 60 workshops on various subjects, including partnership building between US and Chinese schools, student assessment and teaching Chinese culture across the curriculum, organizers said.

"The conference was initiated largely to coordinate the work of the rapidly growing field of Chinese education and to service as a venue for educators to share best practices," said Selena Cantor, NCL conference organizer and director of the College Board initiative.

This year's conference will focus on several themes, including the trend of using technology in studying Chinese, Cantor said. Another trend in Chinese language study is sustainability, she said.

"We're seeing schools trying to create sustainable programs through difficult budget times. Foreign language programs are unfortunately almost always at risk for being cut during economically difficult times, so for students who started learning Chinese three years ago and are now facing courses being cut, that's a huge challenge."

Efforts by the Chinese and US governments to provide funding in the form of Confucius Institutes - the Hanban educational program - and the US foreign language assistance program, have made a significant difference, Lovejoy said. Chinese teachers are more readily available as a result of these programs, and Hanban's funding of teacher trips to China has helped increase interest among teachers.

But Shuhan Wang, deputy director of the National Foreign Languages Council, believes that the US education system still does not place enough of a priority on foreign languages. She noted that in a recent study of 25 countries, the US was the only country that did not require foreign language study in public schools. Further, other countries often require foreign languages at a younger age, whereas most American students do not take courses until high school.

"The most basic skill we really need to be focusing on is the ability to communicate, and the deep understanding of cultural nuances and nurturing intercultural competence. And yet we are seeing that a lot of foreign language programs are being cut," she told China Daily. Government funding and a general growing interest in China does help at the local level though, Lovejoy said.

"The decisions about which languages are offered in schools are made locally, so a lot of it depends on both parents and local business leaders to push their school boards," he said.

Specialized Chinese language schools are also on the rise, with schools such as the Contra Costa Chinese School in California drawing a growing number of non-Chinese students. Of 400 students who attend classes for two-three hours each week, one-third of the students' parents do not speak Chinese, and one-fourth of the families are non-Chinese, said Wu Jing, outreach committee chair of the school. Some of those families are parents of adopted Chinese children, she said.

"For Chinese parents like me and for parents with adopted Chinese children, we want our children to understand their roots," Wu said. "And for Americans, they think of it as a 'must-have'. It's a basic business skill or tool for the workforce. They're preparing their children for the future."

Wang of the National Foreign Languages Council echoed Wu's thoughts.

"Parents get it. It's our system and our policymakers who are slow to respond to the need for more focus on languages in the US," she said. "There's been a lot of progress, but we still have a long way to go. We don't want our children to look at the world in only one way, with one way to do things. We want our kids to be critical thinkers for the future."

(China Daily April 15, 2011)

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