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Chinese classes part of schools' new world focus

Interest in foreign languages rising in area student body

POSTED: September 25, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Until recently, the only Chinese many Hall County students understood likely was read from a take-out menu.

But over the last few years, interest in learning Chinese has increased and many local schools have begun offering courses in the language.

A number of Hall County high schools and middle schools, and even the new World Language Academy elementary school, offer classes in Mandarin Chinese.

Many educators, including Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield, feel learning a foreign language is an integral part of a student’s education.

Schofield said Hall County schools have been focusing on courses in Spanish and Chinese.

"In this country, the two languages that make the most sense for us to be focusing on are Spanish, for obvious reasons, and Mandarin Chinese," Schofield said.

Mandarin Chinese is on the Department of Defense’s list of critical languages, alongside Arabic, Korean and others, that have been deemed important for U.S. defense. A second list predicts Chinese will be the top business language of the next 30 years.

"The intersection of those two lists made it pretty clear to us that if we were going to have an initiative on a language other than Spanish that it needed to be Mandarin," Schofield said.

Chinese has become more prevalent in schools nationwide over the last five years, and West Coast school systems have been teaching Chinese for much longer, Schofield said.

Schofield thinks more emphasis should be put on language courses in the curriculum so children will be able to keep up in a global economy.

"Foreign language instruction is incredibly important," Schofield said. "With the possible exception of England, the United States remains the only industrialized nation left on the planet that doesn’t teach their children at least a second language, if not a third or a fourth or a fifth. And with a global economy, we just think that’s very short-sighted."

The Gainesville school system also is offering Chinese at the high school level.

Assistant Superintendent Shirley Whitaker said Gainesville High School has been offering Chinese for around two years, and interest has increased with time.

"It’s picked up a lot since the first year," Whitaker said. "If you have Chinese you can really do a lot with it. China’s so huge and they have so many people and there are so many businesses in the United States that also have interests there in China," Whitaker said.

Whitaker said her own granddaughter is taking Chinese at North Georgia College & State University and is considering getting a job in China after graduation.

"The world’s just opened up to our young folks so much more," Whitaker said.

Brian Mann, head of the department of modern languages at North Georgia College & State University, said the university has made major steps to improve its Chinese language offerings over the past few years.

This summer, 16 students took advantage of the school’s first summer language institute, an intensive summer program in Chinese.

Others have gone on the school’s exchange program in Beijing or opted to increase their course load to a Chinese minor.

Mann said if demand continues, the school may consider expanding the Chinese program into a major in Chinese language and civilization.

But Mann said he is not sure if Chinese classes will continue to gain popularity with students. He thinks the recent Olympic games in Beijing and the buzz about China as an economic superpower may only temporarily heighten interest.

"What remains to be seen is how long the popularity is going to last," Mann said, recalling once-popular languages Japanese and Russian that he has seen fall by the wayside. "But Chinese is showing a great deal of promise."

He said the Chinese courses offered in North Georgia high schools will likely create interest in colleges with strong Chinese programs like North Georgia College & State University’s.

"Personally, I think we will see some interest from high school students who have taken four to five years of Chinese and want to take more," Mann said.

Mann said that because Chinese is a very difficult language to learn, it would be beneficial to children to start learning it early in life so they are proficient by the time they reach high school.

"Our students learn very little language before they get into high school or college," Mann said, while most other children in the world begin learning a second language as soon as they begin school.

Whitaker said though many lower schools would like to see more language programs, "it’s just a matter of funding to have the foreign language teachers in the elementary school."

Schofield said the state does not fund foreign language programs in lower schools.

"The thing that we do so backward, in my mind in this country, is we try to teach 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds foreign languages when everything we know about foreign language acquisition says that you ought to teach it when children are very young."

But most educators agree that regardless of the language, Americans need to put more of an emphasis on learning another language early in life.

"As a culture, as a nation, we do not value the ability to communicate linguistically" with people from other countries, Mann said.



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