Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Learning Chinese

More kids in US learning Chinese
As China's economy grows, US parents realise benefits of learning the language
By Melissa Sim Us Correspondent In Washington, The Sunday Times, 9 Feb 2014

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."

Indians seeing importance of learning Chinese
By Nirmala Ganapathy India Correspondent In New Delhi, The Sunday Times, 9 Feb 2014 

At Springdales School in Pusa Road, Delhi, principal Ameeta M. Wattal plans to talk to parents about introducing a Chinese language course in Class 6 or Primary 6 in April.

Ms Wattal, who lived in China for five years and speaks Mandarin, is unsure how many pupils will take the course but is convinced it is the foreign language to learn over French and German, the old-time favourites, taught in Indian schools for years.

"Chinese is an important language globally. If business is going to be China-centric, naturally a lot of job opportunities will come up in China," she said. "But you need to motivate children. Chinese is not an easy language... the calligraphy is difficult."

Chinese is being offered by the Central Board of Secondary Education as an optional foreign language at the Class 6 level in a dozen Delhi schools starting this year. The board chalks out syllabus and rules for 15,000 private and government schools across India and abroad, and has brought in 22 teachers from China to teach students and train Indian teachers.

"The teachers will stay in India for one year. They are all primary and middle school teachers," said an official who did not want to be named. The costs will be shared between the federal government and the schools.

The plan is not new. In 2010, then Education Minister Kapil Sibal announced in Beijing that India was introducing Chinese in schools. But it did not happen because there were not enough teachers to teach Chinese, and India had security concerns about allowing Chinese teachers into Indian schools.

While China is India's second largest trading partner, ties have been fraught with tension. The two countries have a long pending border dispute that is a constant source of irritation. And Indian security agencies view Chinese participation in different Indian sectors with suspicion.

Now the government is well aware of the potential of having a young population acquiring Chinese-language skills and tapping into one of the world's fastest-growing markets.

In one sign of how it views the importance of more Indians learning Chinese, clearance was given last year to set up a Confucius Institute, which teaches not just the language but also skills like gongfu. The proposal had been pending for eight years.

The institute was inaugurated last year in Mumbai University in collaboration with Tianjin University of Technology.

Still, allowing Chinese teachers to teach in Indian schools is not expected to lead to a flood of Chinese-language teachers as security concerns still remain.

In the meantime, demand for learning Chinese is rising.

At Jawaharlal Nehru University, thousands of students apply for 35 spots every year. "Demand is always there but the problem is we don't have an infrastructure in place (across the country). This language is increasingly becoming important, not just (because of) geopolitics, but also due to trade and the economy," said the university's Chinese and China studies professor B.R. Deepak.

Mrs Purnima Garg, who runs the Chinese Language Institute, said: "Chinese is the language of the 21st century because of the economic growth of China."

But many wonder if Indian school students can handle the extra burden of learning a language known to be difficult.

India's education system is already seen to be overburdening students who spend hours studying in school and then taking tuition to get ahead in a highly competitive race for limited places in top colleges.

Students are often spotted carrying school bags bulging with books, learning a minimum of three languages ranging from English and Hindi, the national language, to Sanskrit or regional languages. Many also take an additional foreign language like German or French.

But at least one parent thinks Chinese can and should be taught. Mrs Anjali Virk has struggled to get Chinese tutors for 10-year-old Abhay and eight- year-old Adi. She approached her sons' school when she heard of the government's plan to introduce it. "The school said they needed a pool of teachers and that was the problem," said Mrs Virk, who managed to get a tutor this year.

"You just need to be a bit farsighted... knowing Chinese will increase employment opportunities. My kids resist it but the elder one is getting the idea that it's a language no one else knows. Of course it's a challenge because I am not able to help them with homework.''

At the Chinese Language Institute in Gurgaon, students recite common Chinese phrases. It is a three-month crash course taught by a native speaker.

Political science student Kalyanee Parajpe, 18, is learning the basics but wants to go further. "I want to know more about China's political system and I think it will be better to read the Chinese version instead of the English translation."

But she does not know where she will go after the course. "I am thinking about going online and learning. Let's see."

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