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Chinese a siren song for those watching global growth
[March 30, 2006]

Chinese a siren song for those watching global growth

(Morning Call, The (Allentown, PA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Mar. 30--In Moravian Academy's Lower School building, which stands next to weathered 18th century tombstones in Bethlehem's historic downtown, the clock is ticking.

L.J. Hurley, Evan Burlew and two other third-graders hunch over their desks to look at the Chinese characters in their colored workbooks. Haiyan Gao, the teacher, points to a page and asks, Shian zhai je dia?

"Can you repeat the sentence?" Evan asks.

"It's a time, not a sentence," L.J. corrects, understanding that her question was: What time is it?

The four 9-year-olds are studying Mandarin because their parents and principal see the growing importance of China in the 21st century.

Like many other educators across the country, Lower School Director Ella Jane Kunkle believes the Chinese language will play an even bigger role in the global marketplace by the time her third-graders become adults.

In the past year, politicians and policy experts also have fallen in line like Chinese dominoes, realizing the education system isn't keeping up with the world because there aren't enough U.S. students studying Chinese and enough teachers to teach it.

Business is driving the demand. Lehigh Valley companies that deal with China -- like their counterparts around the world -- see a mounting need for employees who speak Mandarin to help them connect with the country that has the fastest-growing economy on the planet.

"I was doing a lot of reading, thinking about what these students will need in 20 years," Kunkle said. "I thought language will be very, very important, especially the nontraditional languages."

For now, private Moravian Academy and the nonprofit, volunteer-run Huaxia Chinese School at Northampton Community College might be the only schools in the Lehigh Valley teaching Chinese. And several educators argue that the wrong languages are being taught in the public schools.

Joseph Lewis, superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District, said he'd like to offer students Chinese, but he can't find a teacher, so the district continues to teach European languages.

"I think we're teaching the wrong languages in many instances," he said. "I'd argue those languages have run their course because French, German are not part of the global economy."

A study by the nonprofit Asia Society found more than 1 million U.S. students learn French, which is spoken by 80 million people. By comparison, 24,000 students in seventh through 12th grade learn Chinese, spoken by 1.3 billion people.

"Learning Chinese is one step we need to be engaged in a global economy," said Michael Levine, executive director of the Asia Society. "It is time for the United States to really make international education and language a part of U.S. education reform, if we want to compete and respect our colleagues and allies in other countries."

Many Westerners have difficulty learning Chinese because it is a tonal language, meaning that a word's pitch matters as much as its pronunciation. In English, pitch is used only for emphasis. In Chinese, it affects the entire meaning of the word.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education does not know how many certified Chinese-language teachers are in the state or how many districts offer Chinese-language courses, which is what several Lehigh Valley districts are trying to do.

Parkland School District is in preliminary discussions with Lehigh University in Bethlehem and other higher education institutions to provide a Chinese-language instructor to teach a night course.

Local school districts, however, might not need a teacher in the classroom.

Northwestern Lehigh School District, with the help of the nonprofit Center for Advancing Partnerships in Education, is looking to set up an Internet-based distance learning Chinese course. It would be similar to a high school Japanese course the district established with Villanova University three years ago -- a course that Parkland will link to in the fall.

Jerry Richter, executive director of the Center for Advancing Partnerships in Education, a statewide consortium of educational and public institutions based in Allentown, said with a dearth of certified teachers, schools can take advantage of video conferencing.

"With the technology today, it doesn't much matter where the instructors are," Richter said.

Gao, the instructor at Moravian, is a Chinese-educated engineer who became a stay-at-home mother when she moved to Lower Macungie Township 14 years ago.

While districts look for teachers like Gao, hundreds of children, mostly first-generation Chinese, have walked through the doors of Huaxia Chinese School-Lehigh Valley Branch at NCC.

The school was founded in 1999 by a small group of Chinese immigrants to ensure their first-generation children retained their native language and heritage. The program, held Saturdays, has grown from one class to seven classes, three for native Chinese speakers and three -- soon to be four -- classes for non-native speakers.

"When we started this seven years ago, actually, we didn't expect so much interest from the local community," said Xiaoyi He, 40, of Orefield, an Air Products and Chemicals engineer who serves as a volunteer vice principal at Huaxia. "At the time, the school was for Chinese families, but in the last year, we've seen more interest outside of the Chinese community."

Since the technology explosion across the world in the late 1990s, China's communist government has loosened its control over the country's economy and banking system, with dramatic results. China now has the second-largest economy in the world.

Asia is the fastest-growing market for Air Products, which provides training in Mandarin and other languages and employs about 1,050 people in China, up from about 700 in 2003.

Research and manufacturing work in China is expected to keep growing, said Douglas Moyer, the Trexlertown company's manager of university relations. That will continue to create opportunities for people who know the language, he said.

"Our Chinese employees speak English. Would it not make sense for us to be able to [speak Chinese]?" he asked.

Victaulic Co. of America, the Forks Township maker of pipe couplings and fittings, has done business in China and other Asian countries for more than 20 years. The company employs 250 people at sales offices, warehouses and manufacturing facilities in China, including a plant in Dalian that it opened last year.

Agere Systems, which makes chips, has long viewed China as a source of clients and as a place to operate facilities. The company based in Hanover Township, Lehigh County, opened its first Chinese office in 2002. It now has three locations there that employ 100 people in sales and chip design.

In his best-selling book, "The World is Flat," Thomas Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, explores how technology has shrunk the planet's size since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, allowing countries like China and India to participate and compete in a global economy.

In a telephone interview, Friedman said Americans need to understand the Chinese language and culture. It's a fact, he said, China will continue to manufacture more products for Americans and buy more American products. He said U.S. companies will need educated workers who can communicate with workers in Russia, China and India working on the same problem.

"I think it's going to be one of the biggest middle-class jobs -- collaborators," Friedman said. "Collaborators are people who are good at working as part of global knowledge, manufacturing or supply chains."

Moravian Academy third-grader L.J. has no idea he could be part of this education revolution. All he knows is the Mandarin characters are harder to memorize than the pronunciations, and his mother likes it when he speaks Chinese.

"I used to study two different languages, French and Spanish, at my other school," L.J. said. "I'll probably try to continue. When we go to New York and try to go to Chinatown, usually I get money or a reward for [saying] xie xie. It means 'thank you.' "

Reporters Kurt Blumenau and Jeanne Bonner contributed to this story.

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