Mandarin speaks to a growing audience
By Mitchell Landsberg
November 26, 2006
SAN FRANCISCO — Bursting in from
recess, 15 children take their seats and face the woman they know as Teacher
"What day is this?" she asks, in Mandarin
"Confucius' birthday!" the fifth-graders shout in
"Why do we celebrate Confucius' birthday?"
FOR THE RECORD:
Teaching Mandarin: Captions accompanying a story in
Sunday's Section A about the growing number of American schools that offer
Mandarin Chinese instruction gave incorrect names for two students at the
Chinese American International School in San Francisco. Karina Koo was
misspelled as Katrina Koom and Sophie Go was misidentified as Siena Belda. —
"Because he's the greatest teacher in the history of China!" exclaims a
brown-haired girl with decidedly European features. She too is speaking
English is rarely heard in Lisa Yang's class at the Chinese
American International School, despite the fact that few students are native
speakers of Mandarin and fewer than half come from families with Chinese
ancestry. At a time when the United States is frantically trying to increase the
ranks of students in "critical languages" such as Mandarin, students here are
ahead of the curve — way ahead.
Founded 25 years ago, this small private
school in San Francisco's Hayes Valley does what few other American schools do:
It produces fully fluent speakers of Mandarin Chinese, by far the most commonly
spoken language in the world.
"In the early days — probably up until 10
years ago — we were considered experimental, kind of 'out there,' " said Betty
Shon, head of finance for the school, which runs from preschool through eighth
grade. "I'd get questions like, 'What kind of parents want their kids to learn
Chinese?' Now, there's just no question. We get families who relocate to the Bay
Area just so their kids can go to the school."
Mandarin Chinese, the
official language of the People's Republic of China and the most common of
numerous Chinese dialects, is suddenly hot in American schools. With China
poised to become the world's leading economy sometime this century, public and
private schools are scrambling to add Mandarin to their roster of foreign
languages or expand Chinese programs already in place. By some estimates, as
many as 50,000 children nationwide are taking Mandarin in school.
think we would have to characterize what's happening with the expansion of
Chinese programs right now as an explosion," said Marty Abbott, director of
education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign
"It really is almost unprecedented…. People are looking at
China as a force to be reckoned with…. And to ensure that the U.S. has the
ability to conduct trade, to sell our goods, and to work with the Chinese,
certainly having an understanding of Chinese language and culture is an
The drive to develop Chinese-language programs has not been
without its bumps. A shortage of trained, credentialed teachers has made it
difficult for some schools to join the race. (With some exceptions, public
schools require teachers to be credentialed, while private schools do not.) When
schools do get teachers, they often recruit them straight from China — a recipe
for a cacophonous culture clash.
Robert Liu, who taught in China before
coming to Venice High School, remembers his first two years in an American
classroom with the benefit of hindsight. It was not an easy adjustment, he said.
In China, "respect is the No. 1 thing. Students respect their teachers," he
said. Liu found a different paradigm here, where respect must be earned and
teachers spend much of their time maintaining order.
"You have to quiet
them down and find different activities to attract them or they will lose
attention," he said.
Liu stuck it out and revamped his teaching style,
and Venice supported him (although a few of his students complain that his
teaching style is still a bit too static for their taste). But plenty of Chinese
teachers wash out after their first year, leaving behind bewildered students and
The Chinese American International School,
which is known familiarly by its abbreviation, CAIS, has avoided many of the
problems with foreign teaching styles by insisting that teachers who come from
China, no matter how experienced, work as teachers aides before they get a
classroom of their own.
"If you take a teacher from mainland China or
from Taiwan, without support, without acculturation, most likely they're going
to fail," said Kevin Chang, the elementary school director at CAIS.
also helps that class sizes at CAIS are small — the largest have 20 students,
and most have fewer. Of course, all of this comes at a price: Tuition is $17,200
to $18,000 a year. Nearly a quarter of the student body receives some financial
aid.Spreading the words
With his school's success as a
model, CAIS headmaster Andrew Corcoran has been working with the Chinese
government to improve training of teachers who are sent to the United States.
Many come as part of a Chinese government program called Hanban, which is sort
of a cross between the Peace Corps and Teach for America, the volunteer teacher
program. Hanban sends Mandarin teachers throughout the world and pays their
salaries as they share their knowledge of Chinese language and
Corcoran said that of 30 Hanban teachers sent to the United
States last year, 27 went home without having their contracts renewed for a
second year. Their teaching style was too out of sync with American culture.
"They've never worked in a place where they didn't stand on a podium in front of
60 or 70 students," Corcoran said. "My fear is that if these teachers are not
successful, then the support for teaching Chinese will wane, because people will
say, 'Well, we tried it but it didn't work.' "
Corcoran said Hanban
officials were sufficiently concerned to invite him last summer to China, where
he helped train this year's class of America-bound teachers.
official confirmed that American educators were sought to help with training,
but otherwise disputed Corcoran's account. In an e-mail from Beijing, Zhou Jie,
who is in charge of U.S. volunteers, insisted that there had not been "any bad
feedback" from either the teachers or their American host schools. She said that
only seven teachers had been dispatched to the United States in 2005, and four
of them were retained for another year. Forty-one volunteers have been sent so
far this year, and about 60 more will be coming, Zhou said. The volunteers "are
of high adaptability and [have a] strong sense of responsibility," she
Still, to the extent that there are problems, they are the problems
of success — too much, too fast.
There is no definitive accounting of the
number of Mandarin programs in American schools. But the Council on the Teaching
of Foreign Languages estimates that the number of students in Mandarin classes
in public secondary schools has risen from about 5,000 six years ago to as many
as 50,000 today, a tenfold increase. The U.S. Department of Education puts the
number at about half that.
Whichever is correct, the number is expected
to continue rising. Pressure and encouragement are coming from far-flung
sources, including the White House, the Chinese government and the College
Board, which is offering an Advanced Placement test in Mandarin for the first
time next year.
In January, President Bush proposed $57 million in
federal spending to encourage the teaching of languages considered critical to
national security, including Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean. In announcing
the plan, the administration noted that, in contrast to the relatively paltry
number of Americans learning Mandarin, "more than 200 million children in China
are studying English."Spanish heads the class
of the foreign-language enrollment in the United States is in Spanish, according
to Abbott, of the Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Next comes
French, followed by a smattering of Italian and German. Russian, Japanese and
Parental pressure helped push Chicago to launch the
largest Chinese-language program in the U.S. — classes in 28 schools that reach
6,000 students from kindergarten to 12th grade. "We're so lucky to have parents
who are going to fight for this," said Bob Davis, director of Chinese-language
instruction for the Chicago Public Schools.
And when Mark Brooks,
director of the private Pilgrim School in Los Angeles, proposed making Mandarin
a required course for all seventh-graders this year, parents embraced it. "We're
trying to give educations to children for jobs that haven't even been created
yet…. Parents get that."
Still, Chinese classes have a distinctly
regional cast. Chicago has the most ambitious program, although Portland, Ore.,
has announced plans for a Mandarin program that would take children from
kindergarten through college. The Bay Area, with its large, deeply rooted
Chinese American population, is another leader.
Aside from the Chinese
immigrant communities in the San Gabriel Valley, Southern California has
generally lagged. The Los Angeles Unified School District offers Mandarin at two
of its 60 high schools.
Gay Yuen, a professor of education at Cal State
L.A., runs a program that grants credentials to Mandarin teachers and has been
working with schools to encourage the expansion of Chinese instruction. She has
been frustrated by the relative lack of interest.
"I think there's still
a lot of conservatism in our area," Yuen said.
There wasn't a lot of
interest in Mandarin in San Francisco, either, when CAIS was founded in
September 1981 by a former San Francisco County supervisor, Carol Ruth Silver.
She had adopted a child from Taiwan and realized there was nowhere he could
attend school in his native language. The first class had four students and one
Today, roughly 400 children are enrolled. The school teaches
half the day in English and half in Chinese, and from preschool on, students in
the Chinese classes hear only Mandarin from their teachers. Students learn
subjects such as math, science and social studies in both languages.
of the biggest problems students face is what to do after they leave CAIS, since
their Chinese abilities are beyond those of the most advanced high school
classes. Some attend after-school classes at CAIS; others move on to other
languages but often return to Chinese in college.
Mandarin, with its lack
of a phonetic alphabet and thousands of distinct characters, is considered a
relatively difficult language to learn. But "if it's hard, they don't know it's
hard," said Christie Chessen, who has a daughter in second grade and a son in
kindergarten at CAIS. She speaks no Chinese herself. Her children's idea of fun,
she said, is to practice writing Chinese characters. She constantly finds
herself thinking, "Oh my God, my kid is doing something that I will never in my
lifetime be able to do."