More Georgia kids learning Mandarin

mlee@macon.comFebruary 12, 2012 

ATLANTA -- When some of Hall County’s youngest students settle in for a lesson, they greet the teacher not with “good morning” but with “ni hao.” That’s because Hall is one of a few Georgia school systems that starts teaching Mandarin to students as young as 4 years old.

Bibb County’s school superintendent wants to do the same thing, taking another cue from Hall by proposing a partnership with a Chinese nonprofit.

That’s the Confucius Institute. There are about 170 branches in the United States, and the three in Georgia are housed at Emory University, Georgia State University and Kennesaw State University. The institutes are aligned with the government of China and aim to promote Chinese culture, cross-border cooperation and the support and encouragement of Mandarin teaching in the United States.

“Right now, we are developing Chinese education programs all the way from pre-K to college,” explained Ken Jin, director of the Confucius Institute at Kennesaw State.

His institute has matched 18 teachers from Yangzhou University in eastern China to elementary schools in Cobb, Hall and Whitfield counties this school year. The teachers are graduate students, he said, usually in their second year of learning how to teach Chinese as a second language. Through the institute, they teach a year in an American school.

But their Georgia project is unique, Jin said, because while they are teaching Mandarin -- the most widely spoken language in China -- they’re also trying to figure out the best ways to teach the youngest English speakers.

“They collect data, give us data on the progress of the students ... to help us develop curriculum and best practices.”

David Moody has a suggestion: “Spend your time in elementary school doing everything culturally based, dealing with neat things, art, culture. music, cooking ... to get kids excited about Chinese.” He’s the director of elementary education for Hall County schools.

“Then when our kids get older, we hope they will really dive in.”

Hall’s Chinese program is unusually extensive, offering Chinese at every grade level, and it predates the Confucius Institute partnership. But four of the system’s teachers this year came through Kennesaw.

In grades K-5, Chinese is a special or elective program for Hall County students. It’s generally a once- or twice-a-week event in a time slot that rotates with music, art and physical education.

“It’s not an immersion setting, but you will hear them using some (Chinese) words -- greetings, conversational language. Stuff like that excites parents.” But it’s taught by way of dancing, folklore and painting.

“The kids have been exposed to excellent things they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Moody said.

Whitfield County in northwest Georgia is in its second year of offering Mandarin to pre-K students through the Kennesaw institute.

For most of the day, it’s typical pre-K in English, in a class with a local teacher, co-taught by a Chinese colleague. Then for one segment of the day, the Chinese teacher takes over and teaches shapes, colors, days of the week and other pre-K curriculum in Mandarin.

After parents called for it, Atlanta Public Schools also started teaching Mandarin in a program that’s grown to one elementary school, one middle school and three high schools. They got their start through Emory’s Confucius Institute.

In the elementary and middle schools, every student gets Mandarin lessons, with very few English subtitles allowed, for at least a couple of hours spread over each week.

“It has been very well-received,” said Anita Lawrence, coordinator of the Atlanta Public Schools World Languages program. “Tons of schools are interested.” It’s only lack of funding that keeps them from expanding.

Nearly 2,500 Georgia public high school and middle school students are studying Mandarin, according to statistics from the Georgia Department of Education, spread among some two dozen school systems, including virtual classrooms.

That’s less than 1 percent of the number studying Spanish, easily the most commonly available foreign language offering.

In 2004, China first started building Confucius Institutes, named for the philosopher who lived 2,500 years ago. Now they are up to about 320 worldwide. They answer to what’s called in English Hanban, a Beijing-based nonprofit associated with China’s Ministry of Education.

Jin says Kennesaw’s budget comes from three places: support from the University of Kennesaw, corporate grants generally from companies that participate in their cross-cultural activities, and Hanban.

U.S. schools pay Confucius Institutes to send teachers, at around $16,000 per teacher. In Georgia, pre-K lottery funds can be used to cover that cost.

Besides their work with American schools, the Kennesaw Confucius Institute also coordinates summer study trips to China. They have sent, courtesy of Hanban, some 450 American high school students on short visits to China for programs in things such as Chinese martial arts and music. For companies working in China, the institutes offer seminars on what to expect, culturally, in Chinese business.

But if the United States has Hollywood to project a warm picture of the home country all over the world, the Confucius Institutes are aiming to do something similar for China. Chinese movie directors, dance troupes and artists travel the world conducted by institute staff. In some places, they offer fun offerings such as cooking, martial arts and, yes, language classes.

Bibb and Kennesaw are still in talks about what they might do together, but Jin said he’s always heard positive feedback from other school systems.

Besides the brainpower boost, Chinese language skills can only help economic development in the state.

“People benefit,” he said. “We will help with the internationalization of education and the community.”

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