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New language focus brings far East to South
Hall schools add Mandarin Chinese classes to help students gain edge in the future
World Language Academy teacher Mei Shan Spradlin points to characters in Mandarin Chinese on Wednesday while her fifth-grade students read them aloud in class. All students take at least one Mandarin Chinese class each week with Spradlin, a Hong Kong native. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Rice and won tons once were common dinner fare for Hall County schools Superintendent Will Schofield.

Schofield visited many local Chinese restaurants three years ago searching for an educated immigrant who could teach Mandarin Chinese to Hall students. Schofield said he wanted more language programs in Hall schools, none more so than Chinese. But certified teachers were hard to find.

“I got to the point, and I hate to admit it, but I was going around to Chinese restaurants asking the owners if they knew any college-educated people who spoke Mandarin who might be certified to teach Chinese, because we just weren’t graduating any,” he said. “We didn’t have a pipeline. But we found one.”

With the help of educators at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, Hall County schools developed a relationship with the Confucius Institute at Kennesaw State University.

The institute is funded by the Chinese government and provides highly qualified Mandarin Chinese teachers to schools in the West, Schofield said. The institute aims to produce more Mandarin speakers who have an understanding of Chinese culture.

Hanban, the National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, is a nongovernmental organization funded by the Chinese government that has helped American schools recruit teachers from China.

Hall schools Director of Secondary Education Cindy Blakely traveled to China three years ago to get help from Hanban on jump-starting the system’s Chinese program.

American officials, too, want more Chinese courses in public schools. In January 2006, President George W. Bush unveiled a $114 million initiative aimed at increasing the number of so-called critical languages, including Chinese and Arabic.

“Something a lot of us can agree upon is that we have never believed in being multilingual in this country, and I think in this day in age of globalism, that will work to our detriment,” Schofield said.

“Twenty years ago, the United States was the center of the world in everything that happened and we had a very arrogant approach that we’ll learn English and if you want to deal with us, then you learn English. I think we’re beginning to see that as the world gets smaller and as some of these other nations rise, we’re going to have to be a little more willing to give and take when it comes to that, and our children will benefit greatly if they are multilingual like most of the developed world’s children already are.”

After tapping into the Chinese teacher pipeline, Hall administrators found Frank Li. He began teaching Mandarin Chinese at North Hall High School three years ago.

Now several China natives are teaching Mandarin to 530 elementary, middle and high school children in Hall County, said dual language coordinator Carrie Woodcock. Schofield said the school system plans to hire about six new Chinese teachers next school year.

“We want our children to be competitive linguistically and culturally in the Chinese and world markets,” Woodcock said. “... It’s just time for our kids in the U.S. to become competitive.”

In August, the World Language Academy launched one of the nation’s first pre-K programs where students are learning English, Spanish and Chinese.

Nationwide, more schools are integrating Mandarin into the foreign-language course offerings. And America’s top CEOs are paying big money to hire highly qualified Mandarin Chinese nannies for their kids.

Lance Compton, CEO of Red Clay Interactive, an Internet marketing agency in Gainesville, said while intense language programs might not be for every student, he has watched his children’s skills progress at World Language Academy. He said the foreign language and cultural education will help them to be polite and savvy professionals in Madrid, Beijing or Buenos Aires.

“They could do a lot of things I never had the opportunity to do,” he said.

Schofield said parents will see a growing emphasis on Spanish and Mandarin in Hall schools. He said Spanish is practical for students, as it is spoken in 21 countries in the West. And behind English, Chinese is emerging as the language of global markets.

“Futurists tell us that the No. 2 business language of the 21st century will be Mandarin,” he said.

“The Chinese are 1.3 billion strong, making their mark. Seventy percent of what’s on a Walmart shelf comes from China,” Schofield said. “They’ve got one of the healthiest economies in the world. And if the economic climate continues at the rate that it is, in 15 years, China will be the healthiest economy on the planet.”

A look inside classes at the World Language Academy reveals that students enjoy learning the Asian language.

Bailey MacPherson, a fifth-grader in her second year at the World Language Academy, said she feels good about learning Chinese. But it was a big leap from Spanish.

“It was fun but it was very weird to learn a different language that sounds nothing like anything I’d ever heard before,” she said. “The first time I heard Chinese was in my class.”

Bailey said she looks forward to using Chinese at work, with friends or in the neon-lit streets of Shanghai.

“Since we’ve been learning Spanish here, too, I’ve been picking it up OK,” she said. “I really like learning the songs.”
Schofield said his system aims for fluency.

“Our ultimate goal, seven or eight years from now, I hope we can take a look at Hall County schools and we can see high school economics courses being taught in Mandarin Chinese or we could see a high school biology course being taught in Mandarin or in Spanish,” he said.

“Because the goal is not to keep teaching languages, it’s to get children truly biliterate or triliterate where you can actually teach subject matter in another language. That’s when you get to that incredibly rich and deep level of understanding of the verbiage in another language.”

But as school resources are squeezed, some traditional language courses are falling by the way side. Blakely said French teachers are not being replaced as they resign, and only one high school in the district still offers German.

“Certainly you’re not going to see us offering much French, you’re not going to see us offering much Italian, you’re not going to see us offering much German,” Schofield said. “We have got to marshal our resources so that what we do we can do with high quality.

And we are doing that based on what we are being told will be the most beneficial to students in the future. The French language is no longer an international player when it comes to economics.”

Schofield said Hall educators are focused on providing students with 21st century skills they’ll need to be successful adults. Along with technology, he said he feels knowing multiple languages, especially Chinese, top that list.

“Four years ago when I’d spend a lot of time talking about the Asian tigers and in particular the rise of China, people would kind of look at you and cock their heads and say, ‘Where’s that coming from?’” he said. “I think every day as we see China emerging as the next superpower, people are saying, ‘Wow, China really is in the game, and we better pay attention.’”

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