Chinese and Arabic languages gain local popularity

Karyn Saemann
Correspondent for The Capital Times
 —  8/21/2007 8:09 am

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Forget Paris.

Today’s kids increasingly want to speak the languages of Beijing and Baghdad.

In Wisconsin and nationwide, the study of Chinese and Arabic remains dwarfed by long-taught counterparts like French, German and Spanish. But they are gaining a toehold.

While some dismiss the trend as short-lived, akin to the Sputnik-era rush to learn Russian, and some media reports suggest a post-September 11 wave of interest in Arabic has already waned, others foresee a long-term shift.

As part of its recent listing of Chinese and Arabic alongside Farsi, Korean, Hindi, Russian and Japanese as “critical” for Americans to learn, the federal government is offering grants to help states hire more language teachers. Wisconsin is among those bellying up.

A $720,000 federal grant recently awarded to the state Department of Public Instruction has allowed Wisconsin to offer a fellowship program designed to fast-track teachers of non-traditional languages into state classrooms this year.

For the last two weeks, 18 prospective Chinese language teachers have been taking part in an intense summer training program at UW-Madison that focuses heavily on the culture of American schools and approaches to learning. In July, the group spent two weeks at a language immersion school in Minnesota.

Participants in the Critical Language Fellows Project include non-native speakers like Aaron Bray, 32, who grew up in Racine, learned Chinese in the military, has studied in Beijing and did his master’s of business administration coursework in Chinese through a unique program at Concordia University in Mequon.

There are also native Chinese speakers like Yi-Chen Lee, 30, who earned a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction in Taiwan and spent six years teaching middle school literature there before following her husband to the U.S. in 2006.

Participants must have a bachelor’s degree in some field and extensive language backgrounds.

Spreading the words

This fall, armed with emergency permits that will let them teach Chinese while working toward full state licensure, the 18 fellows will spread out to private and public schools in Sheboygan Falls, West Bend, Hudson, Janesville, Milwaukee, Nicolet and Shorewood.

In 2009, following a second summer of immersion, classroom experience, ongoing workshops and extensive mentoring, the fellows will have almost all they need to be licensed to teach Chinese in Wisconsin in grades kindergarten through 12. Most will have to take a college course or two and jump through some bureaucratic hoops before they can be certified, said Claire Kotenbeutel, a retired language teacher who helped found the Chinese language program at Madison Memorial High School in 1985.

Kotenbeutel and former Madison West High School Japanese teacher Pamela Delfosse have been hired by the DPI to help coordinate the Chinese fellows project.

In 2008, a second wave of 12 potential Chinese teachers will begin the two-year project regiment. In 2009 the language focus shifts with 10 Arabic teachers starting to be trained.

The grant will also help support participating school districts and fund opportunities for students who speak a foreign language at home to use it at school, perhaps by doing independent projects in their family’s native tongue.

What’s available

Currently in Wisconsin, Chinese is offered in just one private school in Land O’ Lakes and in the four public school districts of LaCrosse, Madison, Kenosha, Milwaukee. No Wisconsin public or private K-12 schools offer Arabic.

Of the state’s 7,840 licensed foreign language teachers, the DPI says 92 percent, or 7,237, teach Spanish, German or French. Another 440 are licensed to teach Latin. Those are the same top four languages taught in Wisconsin schools in 1937, the year the state began licensing language teachers.

Of the remaining state-licensed teachers today, there are 46 Russian, 13 Italian, nine Chinese, three Hebrew, three Polish, two Portuguese and 45 “others.”

Thomas Sandvick, treasurer of the Wisconsin Association of Chinese Language Teachers and a teacher in La Crosse where 200 students are registered to take Chinese this fall at two public high schools, said classes at Logan High School consist largely of students of Asian descent.

At Central High School, however, Sandvick said “we are seeing a lot more non-Asians coming into the language.”

Central will have six sections of Chinese this fall, up from five in 2006-07, Sandvick said.

La Crosse has offered Chinese since 1988.

Delfosse said she has seen “significant” burgeoning interest in Chinese and Arabic in Wisconsin schools but said there is a gaping lack of teachers, and little state or local money to pay them.

It remains to be seen whether schools will continue the programs once the current federal grant expires.

Jacquelyn Dove, a French teacher in the Elmbrook school district and current president of the Wisconsin Association for Language Teachers, which has about 1,500 members in 17 language areas including Chinese, said state and local governments must find a way with or without federal dollars — to expand language offerings beginning in pre-kindergarten.

Many years of sequential, focused study is the only route to adult fluency, Dove said. “That is the way to develop the kind of proficiency that we all would like to see,” Dove said.

Dove said offering new languages doesn’t have to come at the expense of Spanish, German and other languages that remain vital to world commerce. “I think it is important that (new offerings) are in addition to the languages already taught,” she said.

Antonia Folarin Schleicher, executive director of the Madison-based National Council of Less Commonly Taught Languages, said as an elementary student in her native Nigeria, she learned three different languages. Instruction should begin in preschool, she said.

“There is no reason in America that we can’t do this,” she said. “If we want to be global, we need to speak the languages that other people are speaking.”

A shift in languages

Chinese is now the most widely used language on the Internet, and there are more native Chinese speakers in the world than any other language, Kotenbeutel said.

“As a country we need more than a European language background,” Kotenbeutel said. “That Americans aren’t speaking these languages puts us way behind the global economy and culture.”

State and national language teachers and advocates say they believe the surge in interest in Chinese and Arabic will have long-term staying power.

That’s a strong statement amidst critics who dismiss the trend as America ‘s latest language whim of the moment, not unlike Russian in the 1960s and Japanese in the 1980s.

“I think we see sustainability,” said Steve Ackley, director of communications for the Virginia-based American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Ackley said there is no recent national data on K-12 language enrollment; the council hopes to compile new data next year.

But Ackley said since the council’s last study in 2000, mostly anecdotal evidence points to “a sea change.” The 2000 study, on languages being learned by seven million seventh-through-twelfth graders in American public schools, didn’t even list Chinese and Arabic by name. They were simply lumped into “other.”

“Seven or eight years ago Mandarin Chinese and Arabic weren’t even on the map. Now they are the hot item,” Ackley said.

This fall, the nation’s first public school whose curriculum is focused on Arabic language and culture will open in New York City. In 2006, the College Board began offering an Advanced Placement test in Chinese.

Nationwide, various sources show that between 200 and 260 U.S. public and private K-12 schools now offer Chinese. Massachusetts has the most, with about 50, followed by California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois.

At the university level, UW-Madison officials say interest in Chinese and Arabic remains on an upswing.

Uli Schamiloglu, chair of both the university’s Center for Middle East Studies and Central Asian Studies Program, said all six of this fall’s first-year Arabic sections are full. That’s up from two sections last year.

“There has been a rise in the level of interest in first-year Arabic,” said Schamiloglu, with some students pursuing a language major but most taking it as part of a political science or international studies degree.

“The U.S. government is spearheading a huge campaign to learn more about the Muslim world,” Schamiloglu said. “There is a tremendous need for people who can speak Arabic.”

Schamiloglu called offering Chinese and Arabic in state K-12 schools a “really, really important” move.

“The Middle East is not going to go away as an important region for this country’s security and economy,” Schamiloglu said. “It is going to be a place of importance for at least decades to come and perhaps longer.”

Yongping Zhu, an assistant professor of Chinese in UW-Madison ‘s Department of East Asian Languages and Literature, said enrollment in first-year Chinese has risen from 188 students in 2004 to an anticipated 350 this fall. Between 2002 and 2006, the number of Chinese language majors quadrupled, up from 10 to 39.

While more second and third-year Chinese sections are being offered to meet demand, UW budget constraints leave fourth-year uncertain this fall and fifth-year unlikely, Zhu said.

Zhu said if more Wisconsin public schools begin teaching Chinese the impact will be felt at the university. “We will feel more pressure to offer fifth-year Chinese,” he predicted.