American Interest In Learning Chinese Skyrockets

January 18, 2011

Brett Neely

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Brett Neely
Classrooms at Yu Ying Elementary School are decorated with Chinese characters and the students' work.
Brett Neely
Students get a snack after recess before continuing Chinese language practices.
Brett Neely
A sign encouraging children at Yu Ying Elementary School to speak Chinese instead of English hangs above a classroom door at the Chinese-language immersion school in Washington, D.C.
Brett Neely
First-grade Yu Ying students recite poems in English and Chinese at a school assembly.

When President Obama welcomed Chinese President Hu Jintao to the White House on Wednesday, he was joined by a group of students from Washington, D.C.'s Yu Ying Public Charter School. It's a Chinese-language immersion elementary school -- the first in Washington, D.C., and one of only a handful in the United States.

Interest in learning Chinese has surged in the past decade as American economic ties to China have deepened. A growing number of elementary and high schools are offering Chinese classes to their student -- though few teach it as intensively as Yu Ying in the northeast D.C. neighborhood of Brookland.

Housed in a former convent, the school's 240 students alternate school days learning in entirely Chinese and English.

A sign above the door of one classroom says "If you have to speak English, whisper!" Inside, 25 pre-schoolers sit on the floor and listen to teacher Jue Wang. But learning the ABCs isn't on the lesson plan today.

Learning Chinese

Wang shows her students a whiteboard with a poem written in Chinese characters on it. She speaks the characters aloud and the students mimic her.

"They actually know more than I do," says Mary Shaffner, Yu Ying's executive director. "I know a little bit of Chinese, but they're actually better than me. It's amazing these 4-year-olds have only been in school since the beginning of the year and you saw them read all those characters."

The school, founded by Shaffner and a group of parents, opened its doors three years ago. In Chinese, the name means "nurturing excellence" -- it's a reference to a groundbreaking girls school founded in Beijing in 1911.

Today, Yu Ying is open to pre-kindergarten through third grade students, but it has plans to expand up to the eighth grade.

As a public charter school, Yu Ying doesn't charge any fees, though parents do have to apply to send their kids. The student body is about half African American and one-quarter white. Most of the remaining students are Asian -- many from families who speak English as a first language.

'Language Of The Future'

Shaffner's daughter, a first-grader, is a student at Yu Ying. Shaffner says she helped found the school because she had a sense that Chinese would become a global language.

"We thought this is really the language of the future and what an edge to give our children," Shaffner said.

Frank Lowenstein had a different motivation for enrolling his first-grade daughter. "With the amount of money we currently owe the Chinese, I figured it couldn't hurt to have a daughter who spoke Chinese when they come around to collect."

China's growing importance to the United States is driving the boom in Chinese education across all levels.

In 2007, the College Board started offering Chinese Advanced Placement exams for high school students. Almost 5,000 students took the exam in 2010. That's more than double the number from just four years earlier.

College students taking Chinese also more than doubled between 1998 and 2009 to 60,976 students, according to a study by the Modern Language Association.

Still, Spanish remains by far the most-commonly taught foreign language in American classrooms, with 864,986 students enrolled in Spanish classes in 2009, according to the same study.

Although Chinese instruction has grown at a rapid rate over the past decade, it continues to lag a number of languages at the college level, including French and German.

But for many students, learning Chinese is now vital to their careers.

Joshua Sloan, a freshman at The George Washington University who plans to major in business and minor in Chinese, was inspired by his father, who works for retailer Costco and travels regularly to China.

"He doesn't speak the language and while he does a great job and is very good at dealing with people, it would give him that much more of an edge if he spoke Chinese," Sloan says.

Sloan started learning Chinese during his junior year of high school in Seattle. His old high school recently began offering Chinese classes as early as ninth grade.

Hundreds of high schools across the country have also added Chinese to their curriculum -- sometimes at the expense of other languages. Some of those schools receive financial assistance from the Confucius Institute, an organization backed by the Chinese government.

'Languages Follow Fads'

Despite the rapid interest in Chinese, languages follow fads, says Jonathan Chaves, a professor of Chinese at The George Washington University, who has been teaching since 1970.

Chaves says up until the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, enrollment in his department had been steadily climbing.

"They went right off the cliff after Tiananmen, and stayed down for a long period of time and only started coming back tracking the news about China getting better," Chaves says.

If the political or economic climate changes, he says students may again lose interest in Chinese. But meanwhile, Chaves says students entering college today are already much better prepared to learn Chinese than students were 10 years ago. That's a sign the students at Yu Ying, who've been learning Chinese since age four, will be even better prepared when they go to college. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.