As China’s economy grows, US parents realise benefits of learning the language

When Sarah Ramsay was 13 years old, she took her first Chinese class at St Mary's School in Medford, Oregon, with no prior exposure to the language.

"I remember I talked to the middle school counsellor after because I was so nervous, I wanted out," she says. But her counsellor told her to give it two weeks, which she did.

Now, the 17-year-old speaks fluent Mandarin, has visited China through a summer programme, and will be taking a double major in business and Chinese at the University of Oregon.

As China's economy continues to grow, Americans are looking beyond learning foreign languages such as German or French and turning to Chinese instead.

Parents are starting their children on the language early, sending them to Chinese immersion schools, or even private classes, outside of regular school hours. And more people have enrolled in Chinese programmes at the tertiary level, hoping to polish their skills in the language.

Mr Jeff Wang, director of education and Chinese-language initiatives at the educational non-profit Asia Society, estimates that there are more than 1,000 Chinese programmes in schools across the US, up from just 260 when the society did an informal survey in 2005.

Adds Dr Hong Yang, director of the US-China Institute at Bryant University in Rhode Island, who also oversees a programme teaching Chinese to the community: "About five or six years ago, we had 100 to 200 people learning Chinese in a year. Now we have 1,500 to 2,000 students a year."

As a measure of its popularity, at private language school Language Stars, which works with several schools and has 17 centres in Washington DC and Chicago, Chinese has surpassed French as the second most popular language in the last two years. Spanish remains the most popular.

The desire of parents to give their children a good grounding in Chinese is so great that some children give up their lunch hour once a week to take a Mandarin class, says Language Stars' chief executive Jamie Davidson.

Many young students, like Ms Ramsay, say they enjoy learning a language so different from what they are used to and see it as useful for their future.

"I want to be in business" or "China is going to take over the world" are some answers Chinese teacher Diana Douglas, 27, often hears when she asks her students at St Mary's School why they want to study Chinese.

The school takes the study of Chinese seriously, requiring all seventh grade students (equivalent to Secondary 1) to go through a semester of Chinese classes.

For those who desire a higher level of proficiency, there are more than 150 Chinese immersion schools across the country, where Chinese is used as a medium of instruction.

At public charter school Washington Yu Ying, for example, Chinese is used to teach subjects like mathematics and science on alternate days.

The school for children aged four to 11 is so popular that - similar to the Singapore system - pupils have to ballot for a place. Last year, the school received 800 applications for only 45 places.

School head Maquita Alexander says: "Since the second year of the school... there has always been a waiting list."

Founded in 2008, the school has places for 511 pupils.

Apart from the parent-driven demand, the US and Chinese governments also provide opportunities for the study of Chinese through various programmes.

The US government runs Startalk, a summer language programme, and the language flagship programme that gives out tertiary- level grants. Chinese is one of the languages that these programmes try to promote.

Since 2004, the Chinese government has sponsored numerous centres around the world called Confucius Institutes or Confucius classrooms to promote the Chinese culture and language.

According to the Confucius Institute Headquarters or Hanban website, there are 97 Confucius Institutes and 357 Confucius Classrooms in the US.

But while these are "important contributors to enable growth in a major way", there is also a great desire on the ground to learn, says Asia Society's Mr Wang.

Freshman Luke Thompson, 19, of College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, who was first exposed to the Chinese language through Startalk, hopes to major in Chinese and political science, and to work for the US Foreign Service.

He has also set another goal: "One day I will be able to go to a store in China and bargain for a better price entirely in Chinese."
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