“I follow in bits and pieces,” said the Hillsboro High School junior, who plans to study physical therapy in college and minor in international business.
It’s why he signed up for Introductory Mandarin Chinese, a course the school launched in the fall. Before that, Nelson tried to learn from books from the public library.
Although just 17 students are enrolled in the course, compared with 670 taking Spanish, Hillsboro is expanding its Chinese offerings next school year with a teacher from China, an exchange program and Skype sessions with Chinese professors.
Tennessee industries export $1.87 billion in goods to China, and the entire U.S. is trading more with that nation. In response, more public schools in Tennessee and nationwide are teaching the Chinese language, anticipating more jobs will require fluency.
About 1,200 students in eight Metro public schools are learning Mandarin Chinese. Merrol Hyde Middle School in Sumner County offers the language in its after-school program. Williamson, Rutherford and Wilson county school officials say they don’t offer Chinese.
Chinese is the fastest-growing foreign language course offered in public schools, a recent American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages report showed.
From 2005 to 2008, the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education that the council could use, Chinese grew from 20,300 students in grades K-12 to 59,860 students, a 195 percent increase.
Spanish, with 2 million students enrolled, is the most popular foreign language studied. It grew by2 percent that same period.
“If you look at our history of language learning, we always react to another economy threatening our position,” said Marty Abbott, director of education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
Reaction to Russia
After Russia launched Sputnik, the first satellite in space, in 1957, schools wanted students to learn Russian. In the 1980s, when the Japanese economy was strong, the council saw an increase in Japanese course offerings in public schools.
“Now, they are looking at China as the next big economy that will challenge the U.S. economy, and coupled with that, the Chinese government is interested in promoting Chinese,” Abbott said.
Tennessee Chinese Chamber of Commerce President Ming Wang said the state ranks sixth in the nation in exporting goods to China. Exports include medical supplies; synthetic yarns, fibers and fabrics; cotton; and chemicals.
“There are tons of jobs for Americans who speak Chinese,” Wang said. “Understanding the language opens opportunity.”
Hillsboro’s International Business Academy could lead students to businesses that trade with China, said Hillsboro Principal Terry Shrader.
“Certainly, our students that are working in international business would have a leg up on their competition if they could speak Mandarin,” he said.
The school is partnering with the University of Memphis’ Confucius Institute, which promotes the Chinese language, gives Chinese proficiency tests, and provides teacher training and exchange program opportunities. There’s also an institute at Middle Tennessee State University.
Hillsboro will get $20,000 from Hanban, the Confucius Institute headquarters in Beijing, for books, supplies and video equipment for its Chinese government-sponsored classroom.
Bernard Ray, 16, is one of seven students from Metro schools selected to visit China this summer. The sophomore plans to study international business and economics and possibly wants to work in China one day.