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Mandarin Chinese becoming first choice as second language

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Ivie Hunt was barely 6 last spring and had just finished kindergarten when she shocked the hostess at a Denver Asian restaurant by chatting comfortably in Mandarin Chinese.

“Here was this little blond, white girl having a full conversation with the hostess in Mandarin,” said her mother, Ann Hunt, who admitted to being a bit stunned herself.

That kind of surprise may wear off as Mandarin Chinese becomes the first choice of a growing number of second-language learners.

More language students are saying adios to the recent stampede to learn Spanish and huan ying — or welcome — to mastering a Chinese dialect now spoken by an estimated 100 million non-Chinese.

In Colorado, there are many Ivies — ages 3 to 99 — twisting their tongues and brains around the foreign concepts of Mandarin grammar, tones and characters.

More than 60 schools around the state — ranging from primary-level immersion schools to universities to private language enterprises — are teaching this most widely spoken language in the world. More online classes are popping up. Chinese-language clubs are taking over tables in coffee shops. Chinese tutors are becoming a hot commodity.

The popularity of Mandarin has been driven by several factors: China’s ascendancy in the global economy means anyone doing business on an international basis is likely to encounter Mandarin speakers. The spotlight on the 2008 Beijing Olympics increased tourism to China and heightened interest in Mandarin. Also, more Americans are traveling to China to adopt Chinese babies and want to be conversant with their children.

Speaking Mandarin has become a hot ticket on college applications as well as a starred addition to executive résumés.

“If you are going to get around in the world, you are going to need to speak Chinese. It’s a language everyone is going to be speaking,” said aviation consultant Mike Boyd, who studies Mandarin for one intense hour a week at the Colorado Chinese Language Center in Denver.

That message may be catching the attention of the younger set — and their parents — the most.

It is no longer so unusual for preschoolers to be signed up for Mandarin instruction. At least one school district has dropped Spanish classes and added K-12 Chinese. Some charter schools are offering total immersion in Mandarin beginning in kindergarten. That’s how Ivie could chatter in Chinese after one year at the Denver Language School without ever being anywhere near the Great Wall or the Ming Tombs.

And that’s why Trinity Jones, 12, thinks nothing of having conversations in Mandarin while socializing with her classmates at the Denver Center for International Studies.

Trinity had the option of immersing herself in French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese or Lakota, but she was fixed on learning the language spoken by more than a billion people in the world.

“I knew it would help me in the future,” said Trinity, who already has her sights set on being a government translator or working for a company such as Apple in China.

Mandarin has become such an important language around the state that the University of Colorado at Boulder has added a program called Teaching East Asia. It is geared toward training more Chinese instructors and furthering learning about China for more students. It is also aimed at getting a handle this year on just how many Chinese-language schools and learners are out there.

The program uses funding from an initiative called STARTALK that was developed under President George W. Bush to promote teaching and understanding of “strategically important” languages.

Jon Zeljo with the Teaching East Asia program said one focus of the summer institutes held for teachers and students the past three years has been to make Mandarin classes sustainable by giving Chinese teachers more resources and to expose more students to Mandarin at a young age.

The Chinese government is assisting in this endeavor by funding half the salaries of Chinese teachers through Chinese Language Council International programs called Confucius Institutes or through a Chinese Ministry of Education program called Hanban.

Kuo Li teaches Mandarin and Chinese culture to 144 students at Battle Mountain High School in Edwards with Chinese government help and said his students are learning much more than how to pronounce Chinese tones correctly.

“Chinese gives these students a larger horizon in their future lives,” he said.

Amanda Sauer is principal at Erie Elementary in the St. Vrain Valley School District, which has embraced the teaching of Mandarin more than any other district in the state. Four Chinese-language teachers are half funded by Hanban.

Sauer echoes Li’s statement.

“Our district looked at how to prepare kids for 21st-century jobs — to help them have a global view,” she said.

Students in kindergarten through second grade in Erie start out with sessions every other week that focus more on Chinese culture than on learning grammar. Students move on to weekly classes focused on writing characters and language-building in third grade. They can then choose whether to continue learning Chinese in middle and high school.

Ann Hunt is pretty sure Ivie will continue her Chinese studies. She and her husband, Dr. James Hunt, have already decided their 2-year-old son will also have the chance to learn Mandarin. They have mused over what it will be like to eventually have two teenage children in the house who are fluent in a language that is a mystery to them and to the two older children in the family.

Already, they struggle with not being able to help Ivie with her Mandarin homework.

“Overwhelming is how I would describe it,” she said. “Overwhelming but amazing.”

Or, as her daughter might tell her, in Mandarin it is jingren — amazing.

Nancy Lofholm

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  • comment avatar Jeri December 30, 2012

    Remember when the “leg up” was Japanese?

    Not that learning a language is a bad thing, my only complaint is the paucity of the selection.

  • comment avatar Seeker December 30, 2012

    Studying Mandarin Chinese on my own has been fun. I’m in my seventies and can now read Mandarin Chinese fairly adequately, (she she), but speaking it is funny to the fluent speakers who hear me as I still have trouble with the intonations which seem to alter the meanings of some (may be all) the words.

    Guess it is now time to enroll at the Denver University for studying the spoken words. My grandmother, a teacher for over sixty years till she retired at age seventy five, always encouraged her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, to study languages. She had always maintained that it is at the heart of all effective human relationships.

    She has been gone now for a great many years, but her wise lessons remain with many of us descendants, her ofttimes inept but mostly willing students.

    Her most enduring, and endearing, lesson in communications is that if you cannot write or speak well of another person without compassion that it is far better to remain silent.

  • comment avatar PB December 30, 2012

    Wo shuo yidiar Zhongwen. Speaking it is not much harder than any other language. The grammar is simpler than English. But being a very long-written language it has a vast amount of idiomatic phrases that much be memorized one by one (like English). Writing it is rather hard.

    I choose it as my science PhD language in college back in the ancient days when a foreign language was required for a PhD. It has never been a commercial asset to my career. There are millions of Chinese who can speak English as well as I can speak Chinese. Knowing more than one language makes gives you a larger knowledge of the liberal arts world.

  • comment avatar PostGrad December 30, 2012

    I had a couple of Chinese teachers in college. It’s interesting to hear foreigners opinions on America versus other cultures. I had an Indonesian teacher in high school as well. My teachers from Asia spoke highly of America. My Indonesian teacher would talk about the growth of Asian economies, and how the standard of living would eventually have to come down here. He also mentioned the creativity and power of ideas that America has. I think he was talking about how designs for cars came from California, as an example. One of my Chinese teachers spoke on the topic of competition from China. She mentioned the creativity that Americans have and it being part of our culture. She felt that China was not a threat so much because of the large number of poor people, as well as it being an inwards turned country.

    I’ve heard the Chinese are doing a difficult balancing act right now as they try and create jobs for so many of their people. I don’t think we should fear China because there are a number of variables that will come into play. Plus, America is about doing business. We can fold China and India into play. Listening to the radio, I heard an Indian man talking about how you can do business always with Americans, while the British not as easily. There’s a competitive edge for Americans in ideas and business.

  • comment avatar Amanda December 30, 2012

    We are very excited to be in year two of being able to offer Chinese K-12 in the Erie Feeder System. It has been a wonderful opportunity to be able to add this option to our already high performing schools. Mandarin is taught at three Erie Feeder Elementary Schools and then offered as an option at the middle and high school levels.

    My own children attend Erie and have enjoyed learning a second language and being exposed to the Chinese culture. Working with teachers directly from China has facilitated a cultural exchange in our community.

    If you are looking for a unique, small community school with a STEM learning focus, and the offering of Mandarin Chinese, we encourage you to visit Erie Elementary. We are “Accreditated with Distinction” and are known for our high growth scores for all types of students.
    ~Principal Sauer

  • comment avatar Ron December 30, 2012

    Just being able to have a perspective outside of our own box (American point of view) is a good thing. I am not saying we should not advocate the American perspective, just that we should be aware how of other cultures’ points of view. It gives you a far greater sense of understanding and ability to hone your communication skills.

  • comment avatar Steve December 30, 2012

    There’s a lot of economy in China, speaking the language is a huge asset in today’s world. 25 years ago the smart people were learning Japanese. Now days Chinese, Russian and East European dialects are the way I would go if I were a kid. Spanish is a waste unless you want to be a government worker. Too many people speak it for it to be in demand for interpreters but lessor known languages will always be in demand.

  • comment avatar PB December 30, 2012

    I wish there was more post-school Chinese culture in the Denver area. The Landmark theater chain brings in a few Mandarin movies a year. Although I notice there are none at the International Film Festival next week for the first time I can remember. Most of these movies are call “new realism” movies, i.,e. the angst of adjusting to rapidly industrializing society. There are Mandarin satellite TV stations for news and light soap opera fare. Some of China news websites broadcast vieao of important events like National Day.
    Theres only the faintest Denver Chinatown neighborhood in the Almeda/Federal area – some restaurants and souvenir shops. I could use a bookstore and video store. Last Spring Festival there were and astounding five Chinese cultural performances. And in the summer there is the Dragon Boat festival and Boulder Asian festival.

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