10/16/2005 01:08:00 AM|||The Zen Master|||I'm amazed by some of the statistics reported in this article in today's Times:
Twenty public schools in Chicago are now offering instruction in Mandarin.
"After 2,400 schools expressed interest, Advanced Placement Chinese classes will be offered in high schools around the country starting next year. Beijing is paying for half the $1.35 million to develop the classes, including Chinese teachers' scholarships and developing curriculums and examinations."
"Last month, the Defense Department gave a $700,000 grant to public schools in Portland, Ore., to double the number of students studying Chinese in an immersion program."
"In May, Senators Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, and Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, introduced a bill to spend $1.3 billon over five years on Chinese language programs in schools and on cultural exchanges to improve ties between the United States and China."
Chinese language programs in the US have more than tripled in number in the last ten years.
And, up to 50,000 American students are studying Chinese in elementary and secondary schools alone!
These numbers seem incredible to me, despite the fact that the other high school in my district has offered a 4-year Mandarin sequence for close to a decade now. (Our school had classes in Hebrew and Farsi, which better represented the demographics of our side of town, in addition to the French, Spanish, Latin, and (a conversational course in) Italian available throughout the district.) The amazingness of some of these programs speaks for itself, as in this description of the nascent endeavor in Chicago's public schools:
One recent morning, a class of third graders bowed to one another and introduced themselves in Chinese, and a class of fourth graders practiced writing numbers in Chinese characters on marker boards. Chinese classes began at Alcott in February, but more students are already choosing it over Spanish.
Even more surprising is the fact that these classes are not just being implemented in the richest and whitest of neighborhoods (or in affluent suburbs like my own hometown)--in Chicago at least, a number of the participating schools are predominantly black or Hispanic. This diversity in the cultural and economic backgrounds of the students involved, and the varying education levels of their parents, may contribute to some concerns about the difficulty of teaching Chinese to little kids from the inner city, but lack of knowledge isn't the only reason behind that wariness. Even if they know something about what it takes to learn Chinese (as I do), they'd still have rationale for their worries:
Some parents here worry at first about how relevant the Chinese classes are and whether they will be too difficult. The Foreign Service Institute, which trains American diplomats, ranks Chinese as one of the four most time-intensive languages to learn. An average English speaker takes 1,320 hours to become proficient in Chinese, compared with 480 hours in French, Spanish or Italian, the institute says.
Programs like this are terrific, and not just because they expose children that might otherwise grow up with a somewhat limited perspective of the world around them with a sense of its true expansiveness and manifold cultural differences. It's also just plain awesome that these 10-year-olds are able to start learning any language, and especially one that both takes many years to learn well and is much easier to acquire at a young age. Even though I attended one of the best public schools in the country, the only foreign language instruction I was able to receive before the sixth grade was a month-long before school Spanish program in fourth grade in which we met for a half-hour two or three times a week and learned how to count and say hello (and perhaps a few other words that I forgot long before I again had a chance to take up studying the language). This kid, Raul Freire, the 9-year-old son of an Ecuadorian immigrant, has had the opportunity of a lifetime to miss a few minutes of gym, art, and music and gain the world instead:
"Mostly everybody in the school wants to take Chinese," Raul said. "I think about being a traveler when I grow up, so I have to learn as many languages as I can."I can't help but be jealous of kids able to participate in programs like these--and to be inspired to work even harder on my own studies here, so some little kid who's never left the South Side can't speak Chinese better than I can!
|||112939721626656644|||Getting an early start