by Mark Weisenmiller
TAMPA, the United States, Sept. 15 (Xinhua) -- Mandarin Chinese is becoming a more popular foreign language course being taught in the U.S. public school system, as students have started a new school year in September.
The Labor Day holiday weekend is traditionally the last major summer holiday for U.S. public school students before starting a new school year. For the 2011-2012 school session, a number of these students began to take, for the first time in their educational careers, courses in Mandarin Chinese.
Moreover, the teaching of Mandarin Chinese in public schools is not only happening in states with large population such as Florida, but also in some unexpected places.
States with large rural areas -- such as Georgia, Nebraska, and North Carolina -- are also including Mandarin Chinese courses in their public school systems curriculums.
Some places in the U.S. have offered Mandarin Chinese courses to their public school students before others. One such example is Washington State in the Pacific Northwest.
"Washington State business and policy leaders in 2006 actually proposed a goal of ten percent of students in Washington State learning Chinese by 2015," said Dr. Michele Aoki, program supervisor for the World Languages Program for the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Although there is much popularity of Mandarin Chinese among U.S. public school students, this does not mean that learning the language immediately comes easily for all of them.
"From my involvement with teachers in the Chinese Language Teachers Association-Washington (bureau), and general conversations with Chinese teachers, I think that most people would agree that for Americans, the most difficult aspects of learning Chinese are the tones and the number of characters," admitted Aoki.
"What's most exciting about Chinese language learning is the way which the structure of the language -- it's characters and tones especially -- utilizes cognitive and academic skills not addressed in the study of most other popular languages," proclaimed Christopher Livaccari, Director of the Education and Chinese Language Initiatives for the Asia Society.
When the state of Georgia is mentioned, one often thinks of such long-time stables of the state such as peaches, the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Company and the state's rural regions lumpy and sticky red clay.
Jon Valentine, program specialist for Languages and International Education for the Georgia Department of Education, believes that the increase in the teaching of Mandarin Chinese in Georgia and other states' public schools is happening now because of "increased parent, student, and corporate interest in economic opportunities for speakers of Mandarin."
"We now have over 2,474 public school student enrolled in Chinese, and my guess would be that there are another 500 in private schools as well," said Valentine.
He went on to note that "comparisons between the alphabetic system of English and the logographic system of Chinese further develops cognitive functions and supports both literacy in the first language, as well as math and science skills."
Also in the American South, 4,539 students are enrolled in the World Languages for Florida public schools program, according to Debroah Higgins, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education.
Higgins stated that "the (students) attitude and dedication are probably 80 percent of the battle in learning Mandarin, along with not being surrounded by native Mandarin speakers, preferably ones who don't speak much English. Being able to study a semester abroad or live overseas in some capacity for at least six months would be helpful."
Even though the teaching of Mandarin Chinese in Florida public schools began to increase three years ago, the Asian language is still not the primary foreign language taught in the state's public school education system. That particular language would be Spanish, which is being taught to over 420,000 Florida public school students.
Well known to international educators is the fact that North Carolina has some of the most demanding educational standards out of any of the 50 American states. Less well known is the fact that the "Tar Heel State," as North Carolina is known, has numerous programs which allows for public schools throughout the state to start to offer Mandarin Chinese courses to their students.
Almost 3,400 students in North Carolina public schools study Mandarin Chinese.
Federal initiatives, such as the National Security Language Initiative (NSLI) and STARTTALK initiatives, along with similar state and regional initiatives that focus on critical needs languages, have supported the increase in Mandarin (Chinese) programs," said Helga Fasciano, Section Chief for the Kindergarden-12 (grade) Program Areas for the North Carolina State Board of Education.
"North Carolina has had standards for (the public schools teaching of) world languages since 1985. Challenges (to including Mandarin Chinese to the states public school systems curriculums) include funding and finding qualified teachers," Fasciano explained.
In the Middle West state of Nebraska, "the Department of Education started receiving requests for implementing Mandarin Chinese in 2008. Parents and school administrators were interested in Mandarin Chinese and saw the importance of students learning Chinese,"affirmed Vicki Scow, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE).
Scow told Xinhua that rural towns such as Beatrice, North Platte, O'Neill, and Scottsbluff, as well as urban areas such as Omaha and Linclon (the seat for the University of Nebraska), all have Mandarin Chinese courses in their public school systems.
The NDE received a three year Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP) grant which "funding for NDE, in partnership with UNL (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), to offer professional development programs for Chinese teachers," asserted Scow. "Our goal is to provide highly-qualified Chinese language educators in order to meet the demands of a growing interest in the Chinese language."
To be able to study and then completely understand Mandarin Chinese is one thing; to be able to be fully fluent in the language is much harder, revealed Livaccari.
"According to the most commonly cited estimates from the U.S. State Department, compared to languages like Spanish and French, Chinese takes an adult three to four times longer to achieve a similar level of proficiency," he said. "For this reason, starting (Mandarin Chinese language courses) early is very important."