MACOMB COUNTY — At L’Anse Creuse Public Schools, the number of students opting to take Mandarin Chinese language classes has increased in the three years since the district began offering it as a language selection.
“We started out with about 15-20 kids the first year, and we’re up to almost 80 kids taking Mandarin Chinese this year,” said L’Anse Creuse Mandarin teacher Greg Henery.
L’Anse Creuse isn’t alone.
In fact, a number of school officials from a handful of Macomb County school districts say the number of students picking Mandarin has grown in the last five years.
On Feb. 19, about 100 people from the Macomb Cultural and Economic Partnership and local school districts gathered at L’Anse Creuse’s Frederick V. Pankow Center in Clinton Township to kick off the Chinese New Year by acknowledging some of the MCEP’s accomplishments, thanking donors and recognizing the Mandarin language teachers.
Formed in 2009, the MCEP is a nonprofit aimed at encouraging economic development and cultural exchange between Macomb County and other countries. So far, its efforts have primarily been directed at fostering cultural exchanges with China.
In Macomb County, a handful of schools and school districts and Catholic schools have begun to offer Mandarin: Fitzgerald Public Schools, Center Line Public Schools, Warren Woods Public Schools, South Lake School District, Lake Shore Public Schools, L’Anse Creuse Public Schools, Utica Community Schools, De La Salle Collegiate High School and Regina High School.
Some of the school districts have begun teaching Mandarin as early as kindergarten.
“The earlier they start, the easier it will be,” said Wanqiu Yan, an elementary-level Mandarin teacher in Warren Woods Public Schools.
When asked what the benefits were of offering Mandarin Chinese as a language selection, Mandarin teachers and school administrators resoundingly cited the expected professional benefits that students will get once they enter the workforce.
“The world is so much bigger than Michigan and the U.S. What we want to help our students do is think globally after high school and college,” said Fitzgerald Public Schools Superintendant Barbara VanSweden. “Who knows where their job is going to take them, so we want our kids to be comfortable thinking beyond the U.S.”
As school officials see it, being able to communicate in Mandarin — the most commonly spoken language in the world — will give students a leg up in the global economy. School officials point to the fact that companies doing business in China need people who can bridge the cultural divide by being fluent in both English and Mandarin.
“We’re not getting our kids ready to compete in Macomb County; we’re getting them ready to compete in the world,” said L’Anse Creuse Superintendant Jackie Johnston.
At Lake Shore Public Schools in St. Clair Shores, the number of students enrolled in Mandarin Chinese classes has grown from 30 to 250 since the language option was implemented 2007, said Yang Li, a middle school Mandarin teacher for the district.
As a language, the teachers agree, Mandarin is comparatively easy to learn to speak, but a much more difficult one to learn how to write.
“We have the demand for the kids, who love to take the Mandarin class because they think this is the language that will create more opportunity for the future,” Li said.
Henery, who worked for the U.S. Army as a Chinese translator for nine years, said the demand for Mandarin speakers exists in the government sector, too.
“All of my friends in any three-letter agency you can think of all want more people to speak Mandarin Chinese,” he said. “They can’t find enough American citizens that speak Chinese to meet the strategic needs of our government.”
Elementary students at Utica Community Schools can apply to enter into a half-day Chinese immersion program in which they spend a portion of their school day being taught by a Mandarin-speaking teacher. According to the district, the program, which utilizes faculty from Michigan State University’s Confucius Institute, is just the start of what will eventually by a K-12 Mandarin Chinese program at Utica Community Schools.
In general, local Mandarin teachers said enrolling in Mandarin classes broadens not only their professional options, but their cultural horizons, as well.
Last year, the MCEP partnered with the school districts to send more than 60 high school students, middle school students, parents and teachers on a spring break trip to China. Students, not all of whom were enrolled in Mandarin language classes, came from L’Anse Creuse, Fitzgerald, Center Line, International Academy of Macomb, Utica Academy for International Studies and Warren Woods schools.
A similar trip is planned for this year’s spring break.
Some of the school districts exchange students with partner schools in China. L’Anse Creuse, for instance, partners with two Chinese school districts.
Li Lai, who teaches Mandarin to middle school and high school students at Warren Woods as part of a three-year visiting scholars program, said Mandarin language students end up learning about Chinese foods, traditions and other cultural customs.
“All of these things,” he said, “are important for (the students’) own personal development.”
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