Given China’s ever-growing presence in international politics and economics, schools across the country are beginning to embrace the teaching of Mandarin Chinese. Their hope is that proficiency in the language can lead to future career opportunities for students. Mandarin, in fact, claims more native speakers — nearly a billion and counting — than any other language. Now, in Santa Barbara, 45 students from five local schools have begun taking a high-tech class in Mandarin this semester. With the addition of this new course, Santa Barbara students will converse on a global scale and interact as a digital community.
Some of these students, who come from San Marcos, Santa Barbara, and Dos Pueblos high schools as well as Goleta Valley and Santa Barbara Junior High schools, will take this class at their own school, while others will do it from home. This is possible due to the computer-based design of the course.
Students interact with their teacher and classmates in online classrooms, communicating face-to-face using live video chats. Course information, class schedules, assignments, grades, and teacher feedback can be accessed anywhere, anytime, thanks to a secure Web site. And, since cultural immersion is a key factor in learning any language, students together take teacher-led virtual field trips to foreign landmarks using avatars to visit sites such as the Great Wall. As in a traditional class, grades are based on weekly assignments, quizzes, attendance, participation, a midterm, and final exams, but the actual learning is done through games, music, videos, and poetry.
A national survey conducted by the Center for Applied Linguistics found that, across the board, opportunities for learning a foreign language in elementary and secondary school have been decreasing — except with Chinese. Exact figures are unknown, but the survey, financed by the Department of Education, estimated that 1,600 American schools are teaching Chinese, up from 300 just a decade ago.
According to the Modern Language Association, the study of languages other than English is increasing in institutions of higher education as well. A survey report published by the MLA in 2010 found that just under 61,000 students are enrolled in Chinese language courses in colleges across the country, up from 34,000 in 2002.
At UCSB, Daoxiong Guan, coordinator of the Chinese Language Program, said that Chinese language courses have been offered here for almost 30 years now, but, since around 2000, student enrollment numbers started growing. “The demand is still going strong, I believe,” he said in an email. “However, in recent years, enrollment hasn’t changed much. One of the reasons is the funding problem. Due to UC budget cuts, we have lost one lecturer position and have been forced to close some Chinese language classes.”
Classes in Mandarin are not totally new to the Santa Barbara Unified School District. At La Cumbre Junior High School, currently 100 seventh-graders receive exploratory Chinese instruction through an elective program.