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Don Davis, Published October 04 2009

Interest in Chinese language grows

Number of Minnesota students learning to speak Chinese jad grown five-fold in recent years.

WOODBURY, Minn. – Elsa Pan’s middle school students were among relatively few Minnesotans to celebrate the Chinese moon festival, eating moon cakes and drinking green tea.

Eleven eighth-grade students in Pan’s fourth-period Chinese class at Lake Middle School in Woodbury also watched videos about the autumn festival, picking out Chinese words such as numbers and “water.”

The South Washington County School District students joined 1.3 billion Chinese in the annual event.

Woodbury students and more than 5,500 others across the state studying Chinese are part of a mushrooming movement starting in the Twin Cities area and moving out. The number of Chinese-language students in Minnesota public schools has grown fivefold in recent years, with no end of the interest in sight.

To put the growth in perspective, there are more Minnesota students learning Chinese now than in the entire country in 2000. And with the Chinese economy growing to the point that, in some economists’ minds, it will surpass the American economy by 2030, Chinese is becoming a language of commerce around the world.

Knowing Chinese is important. “It is a first step when you sit at a table for negotiations,” said Martin Graefe of Concordia Language Villages, which uses immersion techniques to teach a variety of languages at its Bemidji facilities and in Twin Cities classrooms.

Besides teaching the language, classes teach the culture of foreign countries.

“The culture is really different from American culture,” said Taiwan native and South Washington County schools’ Chinese teacher Pan, whose students learned more about culture than language when they celebrated the moon festival. “Students will not have much contact with Chinese culture outside of our building.”

Gov. Tim Pawlenty recognized China’s importance in 2006 when he called for more Chinese classes. There were 1,233 Minnesota students taking Chinese then; now, 5,572 are in Chinese classes.

“Solid progress has been made, but certainly more needs to be done as we look at the opportunities and challenges created by China’s emergence,” said Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung.

Bush launched initiative

President George W. Bush also launched an initiative in 2006 to increase funding for foreign language teaching, including Chinese and Arabic.

Some federal funds remain, but the recession dried up state money to expand Chinese classes.

Karen Klinzing, an assistant Minnesota education commissioner, said the Pawlenty administration puts a high premium on improving core subject teaching, such as in English, science and math. Foreign languages also are important, she added.

“If there were money,” she said, the state would fund foreign language class expansion.

Even without boatloads of state money, the number of Chinese language teachers has grown from seven in 2001 to 36 this year. They are heavily concentrated in the Twin Cities, with many school districts elsewhere unable to afford Chinese classes.

The state Education Department has yet to compile a list of districts offering Chinese this school year, but last year among the 26 districts with Chinese programs, the few outside the Twin Cities area included Alexandria, Mankato and Fairmont.

The list is growing. Willmar schools received a five-year University of Minnesota grant to develop a Chinese program.

Several state-run Twin Cities colleges offer Chinese, along with Minnesota State University Moorhead, St. Cloud State University, Bemidji State University, Winona State University and Rochester Community and Technical College.

Private Concordia College in Moorhead and its Bemidji-based Language Villages is a leading Chinese-language resource.

In the college itself, 12 students took Chinese two years ago; 27 are in classes this year.

There is “a strong public awareness of need” for Chinese classes, said Mary Rice, who is in charge of language, literature and culture classes at Concordia.

Most students taking the classes are interested in business or global studies.

Rice predicted that interest in Chinese will blossom, which happened with Spanish in the 1980s.

“China is now the largest exporter in the world and the third-largest economy in the world,” Rice said. “People are realizing they need to use Chinese.”

Chinese is not new to Concordia Language Villages, which has taught it for 25 years. Last year, 521 people took Chinese from the nationally known program. Officials expect more this year.

It is not something that Carl-Martin Nelson, the villages’ marketing director, has to work on.

“People generally come to us,” Nelson said. “We have to work a little harder on other languages.”

Lots of reasons to learn

The attraction is more than just dealing with China on the business front. Graefe said. Some children want to learn about China because of martial arts. Parents who adopted children from China often enroll them in the program as a tie to their cultural history.

With China being the world’s most populous country and because of its growing economy, Graefe said, there are lots of reasons to learn about it.

“You can’t ignore China right now,” he said.

State officials are leaving the decision about whether to teach Chinese to local districts.

“We are not interested in forcing districts in taking it on,” Klinzing said.

However, the state has worked on a Chinese curriculum that schools can use if they wish.

The curriculum was developed with the governor’s and Legislature’s support. The effort brought together college, high school, middle school and elementary educators.

If more money becomes available for language teaching, Chinese classes could spread to other parts of the state outside of the Twin Cities, Klinzing said.

“With such huge growth of the Chinese population along with the growth of businesses that have sites in China and a manufacturing in China, there is a need for Americans to converse just to get business done,” the education official said. “The economy is driving business into the China.”

Concordia’s Rice said that written and spoken language should be taught together.

Without learning something about the complicated Chinese writing, “there is nothing to hang on to” while learning the spoken language, Rice said.

Today’s kindergarten students will graduate from college when the Chinese economy is predicted to overtake the United States, Graefe said. That makes it all that much more important to learn the Asian language.

“Today’s parents realize China is a country and a culture to be reckoned with.”

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707.