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Mandarin: The State of the Art

April 19, 2012

April 13 2012 plenary at the 5th annual National Chinese Language Conference in D.C.

“The State of the Field: Proficiency, Sustainability and Beyond”

The discussion was moderated by Martha Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Chinese is “one of the fastest growing educational movements in the United States,” she told the audience.

Abbott notes that in the 1980s, Japanese was the ‘it’ language (see the article she cited here.) While many programs were started in the 1980s, not all survived. “The programs that were sustainable in Japanese were the ones that are still here. We need to look at the elements that create a sustainable program,” she told the audience.

Shuhan Wang, the deputy director of the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland, said that while some people worry that “Chinese might be a fad, in my opinion I don’t think so.” Chinese has become a very important language, not just in the United States but globally. “The environment for the language has changed,” she said, in part because of the rise in China but also because we’ve now built up 50 years of experience teaching Chinese in the United States.

Today, she says, Chinese programs “are like bamboo shoots after a spring rain, they’re popping up all over.”

Training new teachers is crucial to this process and has been greatly enhanced, Wang says. In 2005 the Asia Society released an important report, Expanding Chinese Language Capacity in the United States. The next year, in 2006, the Freeman Foundation funded a Preparing Chinese Language Teachers Initiative at six universities, overseen by the Asia Society and the College Board.

“At the time we could only find 12 programs for Chinese teachers. Last year in STARTALK alone there were 49 that trained over 1,000 teachers,” Wang said.

Katharine Carruthers is the director of the Schools Network Confucius Institute, which aims to raise achievement in schools in England and internationally and includes 5,000 schools. She says Chinese is becoming increasingly important in the United Kingdom. It’s been especially popular with male students, she says. “We see boys engaging with Chinese in larger numbers than they’ve traditionally engaged with French.”

While schools in England still focus primarily on French, German and Spanish, with a surprising number teaching Latin and Ancient Greek, Mandarin is growing. Fourteen percent of public schools offer Mandarin, 36% of private, she says.

Myriam Met, an independent consultant to many immersion programs and former director of the National Foreign Language Center in Maryland, said that immersion schools have grown enormously since 2000. Between 2000 and 2012 immersion as a whole has grown by over 75% and Mandarin immersion by 650% — as much as is known (there’s no national database of these programs, though the MIPC tries to maintain as good a list as we can here.)

There were about 224 immersion programs in all languages in 2000 and last year there were 450 by some counts. In Mandarin, in 2000 “we think there were fewer than 10 programs” and the best estimates today are that there are 75, according to Sally Fox with the San Diego County Office of Education, Met says.

While 75 “isn’t a huge number, it’s significant.” (And, we’ll note, if there are just 200 students in each of those schools, that’s still 15,000 students and families nationwide in Mandarin immersion – very significant indeed.)

“Some of that has to do with the fact that people recognize today that the earlier you start, the better chance you have to attain high levels of language proficiency. But it has to be done well.” says Met.

Immersion students have the potential to reach very high levels of language proficiency and “it’s relatively low cost” for the schools, she says. But while there is a long history of immersion in other languages on which to build our programs, we’re still learning which parts of that apply to Mandarin and which parts don’t.

What is known is that immersion students are very successful academically and that immersion is not detrimental to their English language performance. In addition they acquire very high levels of language proficiency very early in their school career.

There’s lot of data available for French and Spanish immersion. Now data are being collected about Mandarin and much more information will be available soon “that will give us program outcomes,” she says. The most important factor, she believes, is teacher quality.

But Mandarin immersion is still very early in its history, with most programs only in their first, second or third years. Expansion into middle and high school is ahead for many programs.

English isn’t enough

Abbott noted that while English has dominated the global language environment, that’s beginning to change. But attitudes among Americans (and the English, says Carruthers) tend to be “English is good enough, what’s all I need.”

Explaining to students and families about the cognitive boost a second language can provide, and the possibility of better access to the job market, can help. Wang noted that “it’s been shown over and over is that bilinguals have higher executive function of the brain.” They can do multitasking better, they’re better problem solvers and thinkers. There’s even some research showing a possible prevention or delay of Alzheimer’s.

These benefits of bilingualism don’t go to “people who can say hello, how are you, how much does that cost?” says Met. “It’s only people who have very high levels of language proficiency in more than one language.”

Educators need to be committed to developing the very high language levels that result in being bilingual and therefore accruing those bilingual cognitive benefits. “It’s not going to happen if we just produce kids who, at best, can function as polite tourists,” she says.


Teachers are crucial to making immersion work. But immersion programs require specially trained teachers, Wang said. She also cited STARTALK data that 50% of Chinese language teachers being trained through those programs are under 40 and most have been teaching less than five years. They are novice teachers and they need support.

Probably half of the Chinese programs are less than 5 years old, so frequently novice teacher are being asked to build a curriculum and build a program. That’s beyond what a novice teacher is trained to do, says Wang.

A national program is needed, including alternative certification routes that will be meaningful for Chinese language teachers, she says. One that doesn’t presume, as most language teacher education programs do now, that the teacher acquired their language in college.

Most Mandarin teachers are native speakers, Wang says, they didn’t learn Mandarin in college because they already spoke it. “They don’t need to take three years of Chinese in order to be certified.”

That certification needs to be portable, so that a teacher credentialed in California can go to New York  “so we’re not wasting a lot of time and the kids are not being served,” says Wang.


Program Outcomes

Marty Abbott introduced the question of program outcomes by stating that there have been Mandarin immersion programs that have been cancelled when parents felt the kids couldn’t do enough.

You can’t hit a target if you don’t have one, says Met. This became so much a ‘meme’ at the conference that no fewer than four different presenters referenced her statement over the course of the weekend. This is crucial not only for students but for families.

It’s also important to know that if kids can’t understand the language, they can’t learn content in it. “And let’s remember that in immersion programs, students are educated in Mandarin. This is a great responsibility — you have to make sure students are developing the level of language” to be able to access the academic curriculum, Met said.

That means that the program must know the language demands of the curriculum that students will be required to master by the end (say at 8th or 12th grade) as it’s being built up year by year.

This is beginning to gel at the national level, but it’s still early days. The State of Utah has set clear proficiency targets, as has Portland Public Schools in Oregon.

“We don’t just want kids who can wow a visitor.  Our students have to be able to explain the relationship between fractions and decimals in Chinese,  or  explain what causes a shadow, and what causes the length of a shadow to change. It’s not just singing songs, that’s not enough,” says Met.

How to do this is clearer than it was a decade ago, but more work is needed, she says.

And it’s not just about characters learned. “You can know 2,000 characters, but if you can’t make meaning from print, you can’t read,” Met says. “We need to teach students the characters but we also need to give them rich opportunities to read the characters for meaning.”

Another aspect about Chinese or World Language education is the language policies in the United States, Wang says. Under No Child Left Behind, there is a stringent policy for English language learners. Everyone expects that when a non-English speaking student arrives in a U.S. classroom, they will learn English in three years at the same time they’re achieving mastery of the content. “But for English-speaking children to learn another language, we worry that the language might confuse them!” she says. “American students are not stupid – they can learn any language!”

At this the entire audience burst into applause.

But we also must remember that Chinese requires a serious commitment of time on the part of schools says Wang “So many programs come to me very proud and tell me we have a Chinese program. Thirty  minutes a week! Who can learn a language 30 minutes a week? Even a yoga class, you have to do four days a week, one hour each time!”

Signing a student up for Mandarin or an immersion program requires making a serious commitment to the language and the study, says Wang. “It’s not a band wagon you get on and off or Ben and Jerry’s Flavor of the Month,” she said.

Articulation: Middle school and beyond

Articulation is education-speak for the flow of material from grade to grade, so what students have learned in previous years is the basis for what they learn later. Middle school is a crucial time for solidifying mastery of a language but it can also “be the black hole of language learning,” says Met. Students can be short-changed when the demands of scheduling affect what classes can be offered and which ones students can fit in their schedule, sometimes making students choose, for example, between being in the band and taking Mandarin.

And that in turn can make it difficult for them to want to continue on in the language. Especially by middle school, students themselves start to have a say in whether they continue, “so they need to have motivation,” says Met.

Many districts are finding ways to do this well. Portland now has Mandarin immersion through high school. At Denver’s Global Village Academy they’re now discussing how their program will evolve through a middle school., she says.

In Utah, even though the Mandarin immersion program is only to 3rd grade, school principals are planning middle school and high school. They plan that in 9th grade, Mandarin immersion students will take the Advanced Placement exam, and then from there go on to take college level Chinese courses in high school. When they graduate from high school, “they’ll be two courses short of a college minor in Chinese,” says Met.

This is why it’s crucial to make it easy and desirable for students to continue with Mandarin in middle and high school and not put roadblocks in their way. It’s sad to see students who leave after 5th grade and by high school “they’ve lost most of what they acquired earlier,” she says.

A new kind of Chinese identity is born

In years past Chinese classes have been divided between ‘heritage learners’ who spoke Chinese at home and those who don’t. The rise of immersion programs is creating something new, says Wang. There are now students who may not have Chinese in their family backgrounds, but because they’ve been seeped in the language since they were 5, and in some cases even from preschool on, “they don’t feel like Chinese is a foreign language.”

These students, says Wang, have”an immersion identity – it’s a different form of heritage student.”

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