Chinese Classes Grow in Popularity with U.S. Students

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Mandarin Chinese classes are growing more popular with U.S. students. Tara Siler visits students at a public high school in Oakland, Calif., and has this report.


More than one billion people count Mandarin as their native language. This sheer numerical dominance, plus the fact that China has the world's fastest-growing economy, has made Mandarin Chinese attractive as a foreign language for more American students. Tara Siler reports from Oakland.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Mandarin spoken)

Students: (Mandarin spoken in unison)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Mandarin spoken)

Students: (Mandarin spoken in unison)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Mandarin spoken)

Students: (Mandarin spoken in unison)

TARA SILER reporting:

At Piedmont High School in the Oakland Hills, there are 14 students in this first-year Mandarin class, a mixture of Asian, white, African-American and Indian. Freshman Selmic Otoonbayer is half Mongolian and half Russian. He says it wasn't exactly his idea to take on this challenge.

SELMIC OTOONBAYER (Student): My parents. Yeah, it was my parents' idea. We just discussed about it. I actually wanted to take Spanish, but my parents thought that China had a brighter future.

SILER: That brighter future, lit up right now by China's explosive economy, is luring some 24,000 public school students to Mandarin classes. That's on top of the 150,000 students enrolled in private Chinese programs. Those are tiny numbers compared with the four million students studying Spanish in this country, but Mandarin's appeal is growing, both because of economic prospects and because of an expanding Chinese immigrant population here. Ninth-grader Nicole Zido is already fluent in Cantonese, but her parents, both from Hong Kong, want her to learn Mandarin, China's official language, but Zido says she has her own motivation for wanting to learn the language.

NICOLE ZIDO (Student): If my mom didn't want me to know something, she'll speak it in Mandarin so I wouldn't understand. So I was, like, `Oh, I need to take Mandarin so I can understand.' So it was, like, both our decisions to take it.

SILER: Zido says she plans to continue studying Mandarin in college. She'll have lots of company there. Studies show that the number of students taking Chinese in college increased 20 percent between 1998 and 2002. That growing demand had The College Board survey high schools to determine the interest in advanced-placement exams for Mandarin. The response was 10 times what the board had expected. So as of 2007, The College Board will begin offering its Mandarin AP exams, which is almost certain to spark even more interest as students clamor for that early college credit. And therein lies a big challenge.

Ms. VIVIEN STEWART (Vice President, Asia Society): The biggest bottleneck, given that we know there's growing interest among students and schools in offering it, is the lack of certified teachers.

SILER: Vivien Stewart is vice president of the Asia Society, a group dedicated to increasing communication and understanding of Asia.

Ms. STEWART: We have many speakers of Chinese in this country, both from heritage background and those who've taken it as undergraduates. But they're not preparing to be teachers, because there hasn't been a market for teachers.

SILER: At least not until recently. Now demand is strong enough that specialists are considering whether Mandarin teachers need a fast-track credential process. But even with teachers, getting a Chinese-language program off the ground at a high school is difficult. It can be expensive and slow to grow, as the language has the reputation of being very difficult to learn.

First, there are the artful and intricate Chinese characters to master. Then students have the daunting task of learning to pronounce Mandarin, where one word can have four meanings, depending on which of four tones is used. Ninth-grader Shane Scove(ph) offers this demonstration.

SHANE SCOVE (Student): For (Mandarin spoken) you use the first tone, (Mandarin spoken). It ends up being `mother.' But if you use the second tone, which is kind of like up and down (Mandarin spoken), it ends up being `horse.' So it always depends on what you're trying to say.

SILER: While there may be tones to perfect in Mandarin, there are no tenses or conjugations, unlike the romance languages. Mandarin enthusiasts say that once that fear factor is overcome, the language is actually not too hard to learn. For NPR News, I'm Tara Siler.

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