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America's Second National Chinese Language Conference Opened in Chicago
2009/05/04

  

   Americans eager to learn Chinese and Chinese culture are growing in number despite the obstacles they face.

    This situation was revealed in programs at America's Second National Chinese Language Conference that opened in Chicago April 30 and continues through May 2.

    Although only 700 teachers and school administrators were expected, some 900 showed up for 60 seminars in addition to speeches on the state of teaching Chinese given by prominent educators and political figures.

    The conference is sponsored by the U.S. College Board and Asia Society, and hosted by the Chicago Public Schools. Chicago leads the country in Chinese language teaching, with some 12,000 students enrolled in 43 schools.

    The increased attendance is due to an increasing awareness of the importance of Chinese on the global stage by parents, students, educators, political and business leaders, said Shuhan C. Wang, executive director of Chinese Language Initiatives at Asia Society.

    "This is a critical time in America. There is a change of government administrations, we have suffered an economic meltdown, there is swine flu -- all part of our lives. We need to be competitive to deal with the world and make an effort to understand one another," she said.While the situation is improving, she said the challenges to meeting the growing desire for Chinese language and cultural education stem from a lack of a national coordination of efforts.

    "The quantity and quality of Chinese language teachers remains the key bottleneck," she said. The need for specialized teachers is heightened by the "increasing popularity of early language learning -- kindergarten through 8th grades," she said.

    Liu Chuansheng, chairperson of the University Council at Beijing Normal University, a speaker, reflected on this situation. "There have been 300 million Chinese studying English, and I know that there are more and more Americans beginning to learn Chinese. I remember when I came to the U.S. there were only 250 schools offering Chinese classes; when I left in 2005, there were already 2,400 schools that expressed the intention of offering Chinese classes. Today more than 700 schools are offering Chinese classes, and 4,500 have expressed an interest to do so."

    The process of getting teachers of Chinese has involved such institutions as Beijing Normal University and East China Normal University which provide student and faculty exchanges and host programs for American students summer study on fellowships from the U.S. State Department."It also takes strong leadership," said Robert A. Davis Jr., director of the Confucius Institute in Chicago and Manager of World Language & Studies for Chicago Public Schools, and cited Mayor Richard M. Daley's vision and enthusiasm.

    Leadership also flourishes in the more western and rural setting of Utah. Its governor, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., has led his state to the forefront in teaching Chinese. "While math and science remain critical studies," he said.

    "Language is going to be an important driver in education. Four or five years ago, only a few of our schools had a dozen students. We have put together a critical focus on Chinese and Arabic, and next year 82 schools will offer Chinese to 6,000 students. We see people lining up at the door to get into these programs," he said.He said, Hanban, headquarters of the Confucius Institute in Beijing will provide 22 teachers to Utah.

    Hanban is a resource in providing teachers, and its reach is growing internationally as well as in America. In April 2008, there were 180 institutes worldwide, partnered with universities. In April 2009 there are 296. There were 40 in America in 2008, and now there are 53, with the number growing. Gaston Caperton, College Board president, told the conference that Hanban in partnership with the board, had provided 200 teachers to America and facilitated visits to China by 1,600 U.S. educators.

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