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Interest in Chinese language grows in classrooms

Students at Lake Middle School in Woodbury sample Chinese tea in Elsa Pan's class. The South Washington County school district offers Chinese classes in elementary, middle and high schools. Photo by Don Davis.

Elsa Pan's middle school students were among relatively few Minnesotans to celebrate the Chinese moon festival, eating moon cakes and drinking green tea.

Eleven eighth-grade students in Pan's fourth-period Chinese class at Lake Middle School also watched videos about the autumn festival, picking out Chinese words such as numbers and "water."

The South Washington County School District students joined 1.3 billion Chinese in the annual event.

Woodbury students and more than 5,500 others across the state studying Chinese are part of a mushrooming movement starting in the Twin Cities area and moving out. The number of Chinese-language students in Minnesota public schools has grown five-fold in recent years, with no end of the interest in sight.

To put the growth in perspective, there are more Minnesota students learning Chinese now than in the entire country in 2000. And with the Chinese economy growing to the point that, in some economists' minds, it will surpass the American economy by 2030, Chinese is becoming a language of commerce around the world.

Knowing Chinese is important. "It is a first step when you sit at a table for negotiations," said Martin Graefe of Concordia Language Villages, which uses immersion techniques to teach a variety of languages at its Bemidji facilities and in Twin Cities classrooms.

It is not just language students learn. Language classes also teach culture of foreign countries, so students learn about giant China.

"The culture is really different from American culture," said Taiwan native and District 833 Chinese teacher Pan, whose students learned more about culture than language when they celebrated the moon festival. "Students will not have much contact with Chinese culture outside of our building."

Increased resources

Gov. Tim Pawlenty recognized China's importance in 2006 when he called for more Chinese classes. There were 1,233 Minnesota students taking Chinese then; now, 5,572 are in Chinese classes.

Also in 2006, President George W. Bush launched an initiative to increase funding for foreign language teaching, including Chinese and Arabic.

Some federal funds remain, but the recession dried up state money to expand Chinese classes.

Karen Klinzing, an assistant Minnesota education commissioner and Woodbury resident, said the Pawlenty administration puts a high premium on improving core subject teaching, such as in English, science and math. But foreign languages also are important, she added.

"If there were money," she said, the state would fund foreign language class expansion.

Don Davis is the state Capitol correspondent for Forum Communications, the parent company of the Woodbury Bulletin.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.