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Mandarin at the 2010 ACTFL Conference

February 7, 2011

A report from the 2010 American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Conference, by the helpful folks at the Mandarin Center.

This year’s ACTFL conference had a record attendance of 7,200 participants.  Only six years ago Chinese was not heavily represented, but this year Chinese presentations accounted for close to 20% of the presentations.

The number of students taking the Chinese Advanced Placement exam has almost doubled.

As further evidence that Chinese language learning is gaining momentum, here are numbers from the CollegeBoard, the organization responsible for AP testing:

AP Chinese Language and Culture – All students

2007 2008 2009 2010
3,261 4,311 5,100 6,388


That’s a lot of students, but what’s really interesting is that the number of students taking the AP Chinese test who don’t come from Chinese speaking families has TRIPLED, a 218% increase. In AP jargon, these are called ” the Standard Group.” According to AP, “Standard group students generally received most of their foreign language training in U.S. schools. They indicated on their answer sheets that they did not regularly speak or hear the foreign language of the examination at home and that they have not lived for one month or more in a country where the language was spoken.”

Here are their numbers:

2007 2008 2009 2010
363 568 759 1,153


In terms of grade distribution, in the Total group, 77% of the students scored 5, the highest level score AP has.  An amazing 96.5% scored 3 or higher, the score typically accepted by colleges.

To put this in perspective, for other languages, AP scores of 5 range from 11-20%.

Here are the top US schools by volume for Chinese AP. Almost all of these students probably come from Chinese-speaking households, as only Cupertino has an immersion program old enough to have students in high school.

School City/State Exams
Monta Vista High School Cupertino, CA 121
Lowell High School San Francisco, CA 107
Mission San Jose High School Fremont, CA 72
Lynbrook High School San Jose, CA 71


Cultural Literacy in Chinese Immersion programs

“To write is to think”

In order for immersion students to be academically successful, they need to be literate in Chinese.  Nothing advances or enhances proficiency like reading.  Students need sustained silent reading.

Literacy Academics:

1. Academics in primary grades

2. Concept development in later grades

For example, there are several content standards which must be met by immersion students at specific grade levels.

  • Describe the characteristics of sounds and vibrations including how sounds are produced, received and used. (3rd grade)
  • Describe relationships between fractions and decimals. (4th grade)
  • Identify situations that are represented by negative numbers
  • Explain how early European and African cultures influenced colonial lifestyles.

Now write your answer in Chinese.  You may be able to say it, but it is another level of comprehension to be able to write it. This is how hard (and how well!) our kids are working.

Flagship Programs

The government has sponsored nine Chinese flagship programs across the US.  The purpose of the Flagship program is to prepare students to function professional in Chinese within their chosen field of interest by providing intensive linguistic and cultural training in a variety of domains.  Graduates of the Flagship program are expected to attain a superior level on the ACTFL proficiency scale which equates to near-native proficency.

The K-12 Flagship programs exist to make sure that there are appropriate opportunities for students entering college already fluent in Mandarin. At most colleges, a student coming from an immersion program would only have a year or so of classes at the appropriate level, because they would already know what most students learn in the first two years of college Mandarin. Flagship universities offer subject matter classes in Chinese.

In order to achieve their goal, there needs to be an articulation between high schools and the Flagship colleges, and many argue from K-16.  Stronger literacy skills equates to faster articulation to advanced content training.  Students from immersion programs have an advantage although students with secondary Chinese training (i.e. high school foreign language) can begin in the Early Flagship program.  Immersion students will be able to spend more time in content classes.  Graduates of the Flagship program are better prepared to use their target language professionally.

Language and Culture

Language is the doorway to culture.  Culture is the doorway to language.  One door doesn’t replace the other.  Together they serve as a foundation.

In gaining knowledge about a culture, students understand the relationship between practices and gestures.  For example when Americans use their fingers to count to 10 they need both hands.  The Chinese can count to 10 on one hand. In America we use the “OK” hand gesture where in Asia the “thumbs up” gesture is more common.

Students also need to understand the relationships between products and perspectives in the Chinese speaking world.  Examples of Chinese products are: red envelopes, the Great Wall, legends like Mulan, red knots, songs, instruments, poems, paintings, the color red, dragons, bamboo, lotus flowers etc.

The culture triage is made up of practices, products and perspectives.  Teachers need to connect products and practices into a meaningful experience that helps the students develop the perspective(s) that the teacher is trying to achieve.

Culture is not necessarily about the “big” festivals like Chinese New Year or the Dragon Boat Festival.  Cultural details that permeates everyday life are more important than big events because it is learning about a society in daily life.

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