Valley language courses reflect China’s growing clout

By kristine gill


As China emerges as a global superpower, American schools are shifting curriculum to include courses that teach Chinese. Some schools even have stopped teaching Romance languages.

Canfield Village Middle School students started introductory courses for Chinese this school year.

“It’s tricky, but it’s not that hard,” said seventh-grader Abby Forystek.

Her teacher Sarah Siao is originally from Taiwan.

“I think the students are really learning and they are really, really interested,” Siao said, adding that many students have expressed an interest in traveling to China and taking advantage of career opportunities where the language is required.

“With China’s prominence in the world market, it seemed like a natural choice for a language course,” said seventh and eighth grade principal Jo Taylor.

The class could now be in jeopardy after recent layoffs as the district regroups after a failed November levy.

Warren City Schools has offered a four-year Chinese language program to high schoolers for the past 27 years and was one of a handful of schools in the state offering the language when it began.

Lauren Mangino has taught Chinese through the program since its inception and said the language’s more than 50,000 characters make it difficult to learn at first.

“It’s easy to speak, the grammar is simple, but the writing makes it very complex,” she said. “In the beginning, kids are curious. When they realize how hard it is, they lose interest. They really have to be motivated from within.”

Mangino said varied lesson plans help maintain that motivation in students, many of whom are interested in Asian culture when they begin.

“It’s the wave of the future,” she said.

The Asia Society, a nonprofit headquartered in New York that works to strengthen ties and improve understanding between the United States and Asia, is working with 60 schools nationwide this year, pairing them with Chinese schools to improve their new language programs.

Chris Livaccari, associate director of education and the Chinese language initiative, said interest in the language is growing.

“The kind of student populations learning Chinese are getting more and more diverse,” he said. “It used to be more elite private schools or areas with bigger populations of Chinese citizens who were offering the courses. Schools in rural and urban areas are starting to embrace Chinese language programs.”

Livaccari used to teach Japanese and saw the language surge in popularity in the 1990s. But interest has since shifted.

“Obviously the most important reason the interest in Chinese is growing is that the perception among many Americans is that China is going to be a very important partnership for the U.S.,” he said.

Any intial fear native English speakers had regarding the difficulty of Chinese has also dissipated, Livaccari said.

“There was a time when schools were like ‘Can my kids really learn this?’ Now there’s a history of programs that have been successful,” he said.

The Chinese government has taken a large stake in the effort, paying for its own teachers to work in U.S. schools through the Confucius Classrooms Network. There are 20 U.S. schools participating now including Chagrin Falls Exempted Village and Gahanna-Jefferson school districts, which receive funds and approval from the Chinese Ministry of Education.

Siao uses an online textbook with games for the class. Last week, students heard a recorded pronunciation of a Chinese character then had to shoot at the paper lantern with the same character printed on it. They also took turns introducing celebrities and saying which country they were from in Chinese.

“My role will be more like a facilitator,” Siao said. “I help them go in the right direction. In the class I usually ask them to practice. They are the ones to seek knowledge, not me. So it’s a different concept.”

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