At a recent Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education meeting in North Carolina, a group of very vocal parents showed up to express their support for the district’s Chinese language learning program. The district had just released a report recommending elimination of the program due to – what else? – budget cuts. One year ago, the board actually doubled the size of the program, so to parents like David Saussey, whose son learns Chinese in elementary school, it seems unthinkable that the entire program was now on the chopping block.
Chinese instruction in public schools, Saussey told the Chapel Hill News, is “important to our schools’ 21st century goals.”
Many parents and educators agree. Chinese is the national language of the more than 1.3 billion inhabitants of China and millions more ethnic Chinese around the globe, and is the most widely spoken first language in the world. The National Education Association believes proficiency in world languages is one of the many vital skills students need to compete for high-skill jobs and thrive in the interconnected 21st-century economy.
Interest in learning Chinese has surged in the past decade as American economic ties to China have deepened. A growing number of elementary and high schools are offering Chinese classes. School districts have expanded Chinese language programs and students from a wide range of backgrounds have joined them.
According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), the number of K-12 public school students in the United States learning a Chinese language rose to nearly 60,000 in 2008, from about 20,000 in 2005. Still, Spanish remains by far the most-commonly taught foreign language in American classrooms, with 864,986 students enrolled in Spanish classes in 2009, according to the same study.
Some observers argue that we may be seeing a bit of “bubble” – similar to the trend toward teaching Japanese in the 1980s when Japan looked to become a superpower economic rival to the United States. When Japan’s economy declined in the early 1990s, the spotlight on learning the language faded.
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Still, Marty Abbot, executive director of ACTFL, doesn’t see any Chinese language “bubble.”
“As long as China stays in the news,” Abbot says, “interest in learning Chinese will not drop off. We haven’t seen any decline.”
And for teacher Lisa Caress (see video above), the benefits of learning Chinese extend far beyond questions of 21st century skills and competition. Caress is a Chinese language specialist at Kit Carson Elementary, an NEA Priority School in Clark County, Nevada. Not only does learning Chinese have an empowering effect on her students, but Caress also points to how a foreign language helps them in other classes. “It really compliments a language arts program,” explains Caress, a former resident of China, “because you’re forced to always refer back to your own language that you understand to gain meaning into the new language.”