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When President Obama welcomed President Hu Jintao to the White House today, he had some company. Students from Washington, D.C.'s Yu Ying Elementary School were part of the greeting party. It's the district's first Chinese language immersion school.

And as NPR's Brett Neely reports, it's a sign of how much interest there is across the country in learning Chinese.

BRETT NEELY: A sign above the door of this classroom says: If you have to speak English, whisper. And learning the ABCs is not on the lesson plan for these pre-kindergarteners this morning.

(Soundbite of class)

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking Chinese)

CHILDREN: (Speaking Chinese)

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking Chinese)

CHILDREN: (Speaking Chinese)

Ms. MARY SHAFFNER (Executive Director, Yu Ying Elementary School): I think it's a poem and it looks like a kid's poem. They actually know more than I do. I know a little bit of Chinese, enough to be dangerous, but they're actually better than me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEELY: Yu Ying's executive director, Mary Shaffner, showed me around.

Ms. SHAFFNER: You know, it's amazing. They've only been in school - these 4-year-olds have only been in school since the beginning of the year and you saw them read all those characters.

NEELY: Yu Ying is a public charter school. The name means nurturing excellence. It doesn't charge any fees, though parents do have to apply to send their kids there. The school opened its doors three years ago and now has 240 students from pre-K to third grade and plans to expand to the eighth grade. The student body is about half African-American and a quarter white. Most of the rest of the students are Asian and many come from families where English is the first language.

The kids spend every other school day immersed in Chinese, taught by native speakers. Shaffner, whose daughter is in the first grade here, helped found the school with a group of parents.

Ms. SHAFFNER: We all knew Chinese was the language of the future and what an edge to give our children.

NEELY: Frank Lowenstein's daughter is a first-grader.

Mr. FRANK LOWENSTEIN: I had a slightly different motivation. With the amount of money we currently owe the Chinese, I figured it couldn't hurt to have a daughter who spoke Chinese when they come around to collect.

NEELY: And it's that sense of China's growing importance to the U.S. that's driving a boom in Chinese education across all levels. In 2007, the college board started offering Chinese advanced placement exams for high school students. By last year, the number of students taking those exams doubled to nearly 5,000. 60,000 college students studied Chinese in 2009, twice the number a decade ago.

Still, Spanish remains by far the most-commonly taught foreign language in American classrooms. At the college level, Chinese continues to lag behind a number of languages, including French and German. But many students now see Chinese as vital to their careers.

Joshua Sloan is a freshman at George Washington University who plans to major in business and minor in Chinese. He was inspired by his dad, who works for Costco and travels regularly to China.

Mr. JOSHUA SLOAN: He doesn't speak the language and while he does a great job and he's very good at dealing with people, it would give him that much more of an edge if he spoke Chinese.

NEELY: Sloan started learning Chinese at his high school in Seattle. Hundreds of high schools across the country have added Chinese to their curriculum -sometimes at the expense of other languages. Some of those schools are getting financial help from the Confucius Institute, an organization backed by the Chinese government.

But interest in languages does follow fads, says Jonathan Chaves, a professor of Chinese at George Washington. Up until the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, enrollment in his department had been steadily climbing.

Professor JONATHAN CHAVES (Chinese, George Washington University): They went right off the cliff after Tiananmen, and stayed down for a long period of time and only started coming back tracking the news about China getting better.

NEELY: If the political or economic climate changes, he says students may again lose interest in Chinese. But meanwhile, Chaves says this generation of students entering college is already much better prepared to learn Chinese than students were 10 years ago. And the students at the Yu Ying School who've been learning Chinese since they were four will be even better prepared.

(Soundbite of classroom)

CHILDREN: (Singing in Chinese)

NEELY: Brad Neely, NPR News, Washington.

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