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Correction to This Article
An Aug. 26 article about the growth of Chinese language programs said that public schools in Portland, Ore., were poised to begin teaching Mandarin. The Portland school system already offers Mandarin and is expanding its program.

With a Changing World Comes An Urgency to Learn Chinese

Xinchun Song helps Christianna Kutz, 10, left, and Julia Knapp, 9, both of Frederick, as they practice using chopsticks in a Chinese class at West Frederick Middle School.
Xinchun Song helps Christianna Kutz, 10, left, and Julia Knapp, 9, both of Frederick, as they practice using chopsticks in a Chinese class at West Frederick Middle School. (Photos By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 26, 2006

Pearl Terrell was so determined that her great-granddaughter Shayla begin learning Chinese that she spent two weeks this summer driving 100 miles a day from her home in West Virginia to a middle school in Frederick County so the soon-to-be fifth-grader could learn the language.

The U.S. government flew 10 teachers to Washington from China this month and gave them a five-day crash course in Dupont Circle on how to teach -- American-style -- before dispatching them to schools across the country. Although the number may seem small, the scramble to recruit and train these teachers for the start of this school year underscores the urgency the Bush administration is placing on establishing Chinese programs in U.S. classrooms.

After years of insisting that the world speak English, of grants and initiatives that established foreign language programs in fits and starts, Americans have awakened to a far more global playing field and the need for specialized languages, economists say. And nowhere is that more evident than with China.

"China is being mentioned everywhere in relation to everything from business, international affairs -- even the war on terror," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan. "You buy things in the store -- they're made in China. . . . No one is hearing about France as the way of the future."

More than 1.3 billion people worldwide speak Chinese, and about 885 million of those people speak Mandarin, China's official language and dominant dialect. In the United States, only about 24,000 students in grades seven through 12 study the language, according to a report from the Asia Society, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that seeks to build ties between the United States and Asia. But educators say those students reflect a steady growth in the number of Americans wanting to learn Chinese.

"People are finally beginning to pay attention to Mandarin as a major cultural and economic prospect for students," said Michael H. Levine, executive director of education for the Asia Society. "The push is coming from the defense [community] and government and grass-roots interest from parents."

In January, President Bush unveiled a $114 million initiative aimed at increasing the number of so-called critical languages, such as Chinese and Arabic, taught in U.S. schools. The 10 Chinese teachers are the first recruits in a program the Bush administration hopes to expand to include teachers of Russian, Korean, Farsi and other critical languages.

"This is the largest initiative of its kind focused on language in half a century," said Thomas A. Farrell, deputy assistant secretary for academic programs at the State Department.

There is no official tracking of Chinese programs, but about 96 public and private U.S. schools offer Arabic, according to the National Capital Language Resource Center, a joint project of Georgetown and George Washington universities and the nonprofit Center for Applied Linguistics. This fall, for example, Springbrook High School in Silver Spring will offer Arabic for the first time.

Chinese language courses are not new, particularly in the Washington area, where schools have long had an international bent. In Montgomery County, Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Richard Montgomery high schools have offered Mandarin since the late 1980s. Fairfax County schools have offered it since the 1990s.

But what is new is that interest in such courses no longer comes exclusively from Asian parents, who viewed the programs as a way for their children to maintain ties to their culture. Increasingly, it's non-Asian parents who want their children to learn Chinese, citing the desire to remain competitive for the best jobs. For example, in the Chinese language program offered in Frederick County this summer, only two of the 16 children were Asian.

"They want their children to have an edge, and they see Chinese as helping them get that," said Paula Patrick, foreign language coordinator for Fairfax public schools, where about 1,200 students take Chinese.

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