Chinese classes a challenge in U.S.

Cultural Insights — By on March 27, 2007 at 7:50 am

Suddenly, it seems, U.S. students are clamoring to learn Chinese. In the past seven years, according to this article in the Christian Science Monitor, enrollment in Mandarin classes has jumped tenfold among primary and secondary students. Of course, it’s still a mere pittance compared to the huge numbers of people in China who are learning English. And it has posed a new challenge for American schools, namely a severe shortage of Chinese language teachers.

Just as the United States has built up a huge trade deficit with China, the teacher shortage reveals America’s language deficit. In China, some 200 million students are studying English through programs put in place decades ago. In the US, the sudden attention on Mandarin has exposed a serious lack of infrastructure.

“In our education system, world language has always been marginalized, and Chinese is even more on the outside,” says Shuhan Wang, head of Chinese language initiatives at the Asia Society in New York. “That the world is speaking English is really a double-edged sword for the American people. It makes it easier for us [Americans]…. The problem is that people understand us, but we don’t comprehend them at all.”

To address the need for language teachers, school districts are recruiting teachers in China and Taiwan. Although that then poses cultural challenges, for Chinese and American students tend to have different ways of interacting with teachers.

“In China or Taiwan, you don’t talk back to your teachers. What the teacher says goes,” says Heather Lin, assistant to the head of school at the Chinese American International School (CAIS) in San Francisco. “We have had one of our teachers who came to CAIS after having taught in China for nine years. She came from a classroom of 60 students in China, to a class of 16 here, and she said it was so much more work to teach the 16.”

The American model emphasizes “talking back” in the good sense of interactive learning. And the smaller number of students means that the teaching should be more individually tailored. That’s a tall order for some foreign teachers, especially when classrooms have students with widely different abilities, backgrounds, and behaviors.

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