In Alaska, students are calling their teacher “lao shi.” In Illinois, they’re learning that one plus one equals “er.” And in western Massachusetts, kindergarten students who can sing their ABCs will soon start honing Mandarin accents.
As China’s economic power grows, Chinese is becoming the new language of the future.
At least 27 states offer Chinese language classes in either elementary, middle or high schools. And at least 12 public and private schools across the country teach most subjects in Mandarin Chinese, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington.
“It’s about jobs and a world economy,” said Richard Alcorn, who with his wife won state approval last month for the first Chinese immersion charter school in Massachusetts. “There are unbelievable opportunities to do business in China, so there’s a need for Americans to learn the language so we’re not left out.”
Some of the push for Chinese instruction is coming from families who want their children to learn the language of their heritage.
“But the major force behind it is coming from parents who don’t speak Chinese and want their children to be exposed to it,” said Zhining Chin, a coordinator at the Eisenhower Elementary School, a public Chinese immersion school set to open in September in Hopkins, Minn. “They recognize the importance of China as a world power.”
Shuhan Wang, executive director of Chinese language initiatives for the New York-based Asia Society, said the surge in Chinese language classes started around 2003.
“Anyone who reads the newspaper realizes that you can’t ignore Asia anymore,” she said. “American education has always been Euro-centric, and now we’re realizing how inadequate our perspective on Asia has been.”