More Americans Learn Their ABCs In Chinese The number of Americans studying Chinese is soaring, thanks in part to deeper economic ties with China. Kids from one Chinese-language immersion school met the U.S. and Chinese presidents on Wednesday, an example of the students from elementary schools to colleges who are signing up to learn what some have dubbed the "language of the future."
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More Americans Learn Their ABCs In Chinese

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More Americans Learn Their ABCs In Chinese

More Americans Learn Their ABCs In Chinese

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

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: Unidentified Woman: (Speaking Chinese)

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASS)

CHILDREN: Unidentified Woman: (Speaking Chinese)

CHILDREN: (Speaking Chinese)

MARY SHAFFNER: 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.

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: 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.

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.

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: 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.

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: 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.

JONATHAN CHAVES: 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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