Mandarin classes gain in popularity

The other day at Integrity Christian Academy, a group of elementary students gathered around a screen for the start of this year’s Mandarin class, an increasingly popular language offering in metro Atlanta.

It was 8:20 a.m. at the Snellville campus; 8:20 p.m. in Beijing, from which their online instructor Sunny Dang spoke. With China’s growing clout, some parents and educators are shifting kids’ language focus to Chinese instead of the traditionally favored Spanish. While many schools have on-site Mandarin teachers, others turn to online instructors such as Dang.

“Ni hao,” Dang began, coaxing the students to respond.

“Ni hao,” they repeated, trying their best to match Dang’s pronunciation.

With the Mandarin version of “hello,” down pat, Dang continued.

“Ni hao ma?” she asked. “How are you?”

For nearly an hour, Dang drew them in, each time expanding on short conversational phrases in her native tongue, then letting them repeat.

For years, schools focused on Spanish as a second language for American students. The thought was that with the growing Latino population in the United States, a basic understanding of Spanish was essential.

Although 75 percent of students studying foreign language still chose Spanish in 2008, the latest year for which statistics are available, parents and educators are putting an emphasis on learning Chinese, said Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, in Alexandria, Va. They believe with China’s economic power and growing population, Chinese is essential. In some cases, it’s a cultural tie for children who were adopted from China.

Integrity, which uses an online program called Mando Mandarin, is one of dozens of metro Atlanta public and private schools offering Mandarin to its students. Local districts have been offering the class at least since 2006, when the Fulton County Schools opened classes.

Today, there are 857 students enrolled in Mandarin at 13 of the Fulton district’s middle and high schools; 200 in Gwinnett County schools.

“Chinese is the fastest-growing language in Fulton County Schools due to the expansion of our world language program,” said Keena Ryals-Jenkins, director of humanities for the district. “We believe that it aids in the development of globally competent students who benefit from the exposure to multiple cultures.”

A growing interest

The number of U.S. public school students in k-12 studying Mandarin Chinese tripled from 20,000 in 2004 to 60,000 in 2008, Abbott said.

“When schools opt to add a new language, it’s almost always Mandarin,” she said.

While the majority of metro Atlanta schools with classes have on-site Mandarin instructors, some schools such as Integrity are utilizing online instruction from the New York-based Mando Mandarin Chinese School.

Founded in 2007 as an online tutoring agency, Mando Mandarin provides instruction to elementary, middle and high schools across America. Lessons are taught in real time as students log in to online classrooms and use webcams to communicate with teachers in China, said Michael Cheng, president and founder of the online school.

Integrity is bringing Mandarin back for the second consecutive year, said Djuana Ferguson, founder and administrator. Ferguson said the online course quickly became a selling point to parents interested in foreign language instruction for their kids. Enrollment has more than doubled from 27 k-5 students last year to 62.

“Parents love it and the kids did an amazing job last year,” she said. “By midyear last year, they could sing songs, recite the alphabet, sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me in Chinese.”

Dione Colvin said she jumped at the chance to enroll her 4-year-old son Tyler, who’s a big fan of “Ni Hao, Kai-lan!,” a Nickelodeon cartoon that introduces its viewers to Mandarin.

“Once he got into the class and was able to understand the language, he was very excited and so was I,” Colvin said.

Starting at early age

Sophie Li, founder of Little Busy Bee Mandarin Play & Learn in Sandy Springs, has been getting similar reviews from parents.

Li, a native of Xi-An, China, began teaching Mandarin nearly a decade ago while attending the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

“I was lucky enough to meet a family who’d adopted a child from China and wanted her to learn the language,” Li said. “I ended up having a group of kids, teaching Chinese Mandarin.”

In December 2006, Li said she was offered a job to teach at the Suzuki School and moved to Atlanta.

Two years ago, she opened Little Busy Bee, which offers four program levels for children aged 1 to 8 and free trial classes to interested parents.

“What sets us apart,” she said, “is our children are learning the language and culture through playing.”

Donna Neumann of Sandy Springs said her daughters 5-year-old Mia and 3-year-old Piper were first introduced to Mandarin at age 2 when they were enrolled at Kids R Kids day care in east Roswell.

“I took them to Busy Bee because I wanted to accelerate their learning,” Neumann said. “Also, Sophie welcomed parents to stay and learn along with the children, and I wanted to learn some Mandarin so I can practice with the girls.”

When Busy Bee moved to its current location, she said, they took a break but recently returned.

Neumann said she wanted her daughters to learn Mandarin for a number of reasons but primarily because they were adopted from China.

“My husband and I want them to have pride in their native country and understand its culture,” she said. “We plan to take them back to China in a few years on a heritage tour, and want them to be able to speak the language.”

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