Friday, October 10, 2008

The Importance of Learning Chinese

First graders in Grace Yuan’s Chinese class at Providence Elementary in Fairfax County, VA aren’t shy about showing off what they’ve learned since the start of the year. The 6-year-olds are all eager to come to the front of the class to recite their names in Chinese, the days of the week, numbers from 1-31, months of the year, the four seasons, and some basic greetings.

“I couldn’t be more impressed,” beams Providence’s Principal Joy Hanbury. “To say these students are picking up Chinese with great ease and enthusiasm is an understatement. I can’t wait to see what they’ll know by the end of the year.”

She credits the 1st graders’ success to the high-energy and creativity of Yuan, who has also helped Fairfax County Public Schools develop the curriculum for the Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools (FLES) Chinese program that is being integrated into the 1st grade curriculum at Providence this year.

These students will continue with the program next year when they become 2nd graders—and the new 1st grader class will begin learning Chinese. Within six years, all 1st through 6th grade students at Providence will be studying the language.

“This is very exciting,” shares Hanbury, who was eager to integrate the Chinese FLES program into the curriculum this year. “We have had the Latin program at Providence for several years and the students have benefitted tremendously from learning a second language.”

Plus, she says, by learning Chinese her students will have an increased global awareness of their school community, country, and world. “By exposing children to this challenging level 4 language early on, the students will more easily recognize difficult tonal sounds,” Hanbury explains. “Plus, this experience will enable them to understand the basic conventions of other languages.”

Why learn Chinese?

China is the world’s fourth largest economy, and continues to grow by about 9.5% a year. It is a top recipient of foreign investment—one that has become a top trading partner with the U.S. Add to that the fact that Mandarin Chinese, the language being taught at Providence and also Fairfax High (see sidebar on page 3) is the most widely spoken language in the world.
Approximately 867 million people speak Mandarin, and a total of 1.1 billion people speak other dialects of Chinese, according to Language Today. An article entitled “The 10 Most Influential Languages,” indicates English is spoken by 330 million people worldwide—followed by Spanish (300 million), Hindi/Urdu (250 million), and Arabic (200 million).

Already, most major U.S. universities are offering Chinese classes, and increasingly students from kindergarten to 12th grade are also being given the opportunity to learn Mandarin.
The reason, according to many business leaders, is that the philosophy has changed regarding how to conduct business abroad.

“When you do business with or go to other countries, be prepared to work on their terms,” says Robert Davis, who taught in China before returning to Chicago where he started a comprehensive language program. Today, about 3,500 students K-12 in southwest Chicago Public School system are learning Mandarin.

And consider this: Last year, the British Council (the United Kingdom’s international organization for cultural relations and educational opportunities) conducted a research study—entitled “English Next”—that concluded the lack of students fluent in a foreign language in both Britain and the U.S. will eventually weaken the competitiveness of both countries.

The report offered dozens of reasons why students in both countries should be learning Chinese—reasons echoed by Michael Levine, executive director of education at the Asia Society in New York.

“In an age where security, competitiveness and democratic leadership depend on constructive engagement, our nation must take urgent action so that our international knowledge and language expertise is second to none,” Levine insists. “The question is when, not whether, schools are going to adjust.”

Levine recently told The Christian Science Monitor: “One doesn’t need to be proficient in Chinese languages to do business in China. But the exposure and motivation to show that one understands and respects the Chinese culture is really half the battle won.”

Rising to the challenge

Exposing students to this important culture is the reason Providence’s Hanbury began considering the opportunity to integrate Chinese into her school’s curriculum about two years ago. Fairfax High’s Principal Scott Brabrand also saw the benefits of incorporating a program into the Fairfax Academy offerings.

Both principals had full support from the City School Board. “This is a very forward-looking program,” says School Board Chairman Janice Miller. “We are thrilled that Joy and Scott took the lead and are now able to offer it to our students.”

City of Fairfax Schools Superintendent Ann Monday agrees. “Chinese provides an opportunity for our students to learn a language that is quickly becoming dominant in the world economy,” Monday says. “It also provides students a chance to learn about a culture very different from their own.”

Of course, none of this could be possible without the support of the Fairfax County Public Schools.
“We are moving away from a model that provides instruction late in a student's educational career to one that incorporates language early,” says Peter Noonan, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction for FCPS. “This will, in the end, provide a level of communicative competence that even our current, highest level students, often do not meet. This model incorporates all we know is best about language acquisition.”

Leading the charge, Noonan says, is FCPS Foreign Language Coordinator Paula Patrick. “To help us expand our foreign languages offerings, FCPS was awarded a grant of $621,000 dollars from a federal Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP) grant to be spent over a three year period to address critical needs languages of Chinese and Arabic to ensure the students are even better prepared to understand the people who will help define the 21st century,” she explains.

The grant ends on Sept. 15, 2009, but Patrick says she is confident FCPS will continue to offer Chinese in the City Schools. “I am especially pleased that the Chinese program at FHS—which is open to all FCPS students at the Academy level—also includes partnerships with schools in China and with Georgetown University. It is great to see the entire pyramid working together to provide a quality foreign language program for the students of Fairfax City.”

Moving forward

Patrick says one of her goals is to extend language opportunities to students and parents through the use of technology.
“Ms. Yuan makes lessons available to her elementary students and parents through her Blackboard site, and Alaric Radosh extends his classroom instruction of Chinese through the use of MP3 players and other types of technology.”

Patrick is also in the process of developing a Chinese program in the Fairfax pyramid to provide students with a comprehensive language program of study they can continue into college. “We are planning to partner with Georgetown and George Mason University for student mentoring, seminars, guest speakers, and summer language camps and workshops,” says Patrick. Her ultimate goal, she says, is to have all students learn at least one foreign language—if not two or three—by the time they graduate from high school.

Mastering Chinese may lead students to these jobs:
Intelligence operations
International business / international relations
IT and computer technology
National and international security
Travel industry expert

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