Beyond romance languages


Cars, electronics and sundry goods have for years been exported in bulk from China to the States, causing no shortage of Made in China stickers for US consumers. And America has always returned the favor, sending mass mailings of popular culture Hollywood, fast food and English included to the East.

The school board-approved budget has made room for one full time Chinese Mandarin language teacher to be shared by Hammond and George Washington middle schools. The budget has yet to be approved by City Council, but the very allocation of a Mandarin language teacher represents a change in foreign language education (including the languages adjoining culture) and a shift in cultural exchange.

One can make a very real case for [a Chinese teacher] with regard to Chinese influence in the world, and certainly a great influence in our economy, School Board Chairwoman Claire Eberwein said at a joint work session with City Council last week. So some familiarity with that is paramount for us to make sure that our children are receiving the kinds of education they need

The tides of foreign language curricula have been changing nationally since 2006 when President Bush launched his National Language Security Initiative (NLSI), which cited learning languages like Chinese, Arabic, Farsi and Russian at an early age as an essential component of U.S. national security in the post-9/11 world.

Traditionally, only Latin-derived romance languages (French, Spanish, German and Latin itself) have been part of the Alexandria City Public School curriculum, but with the exception of Spanish, their linguistic and cultural relevance has tapered locally and nationally, and world events have designated Chinese and Arabic critically strategic languages.

ACPS World Language Curriculum Specialist Gregory Jones first proposed the idea to the board two years ago, when he said he was immensely informed by two trips to China, where he spoke with local teachers and students. We wanted to offer students other opportunities, said Jones, who stressed the imperativeness of the program for Americas future. China represents about one fifth of the worlds population, so we believe its time.

Alexandria is playing catch-up to neighboring Arlington and Fairfax County Schools, which currently offer Chinese and Arabic programs among other non-romance language classes. But Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages will not be offered yet, Jones said, despite their fledging relevance for Americans.

A simultaneous addition of an Arabic teacher would be ideal, Eberwein said, but a student survey indicated that the Chinese option superseded Arabic, though neither language received more votes than Italian or American Sign Language, according to the surveys results.

Foreign language exposure in the citys schools is tangible, Spanish being the most non-English language spoken in the system, according to Jones. But at TC Williams High School, the most commonly spoken non-English language is not Spanish, Arabic nor Mandarin. It is Urdu, a language predominately spoken in Pakistan and India. Urdu received the least amount of votes from students at just 2.9 percent, according to the survey.

ACPS began implementing the Mandarin program this year by introducing the language to sixth graders via Chengo, an online Chinese language program.