Across the United States, the percentage of institutions offering Chinese has increased while the teaching of other popular languages has declined.
In a survey of 5,000 elementary and secondary schools, the Center for Applied Linguistics found that Chinese instruction grew in middle and high schools from 1 percent in 1997 to 4 percent in 2008.
These small increases stand in contrast to the declining interest in both French and German over the same time period. Secondary school interest for French slipped from 64 percent to 48 percent and German declined from 24 percent to 14 percent.
UC Davis is also experiencing expanding numbers of students taking or majoring in Chinese.
According to Chengzhi Chu, professor of Chinese and the language program coordinator, enrollment in Chinese language courses grew about 50 percent over the past five years – from approximately 1,000 in 2004 to an estimated 1,500 in 2009.
Information obtained from the Office of Campus Counsel also shows the number of Chinese majors – primary, double or triple -has tripled from the period of 2002 to 2009.
This boost of interest in Chinese can be explained by China’s emergence as an economic power, according to Mark Halperin, UC Davis professor of Chinese.
As China has transitioned from a communist to capitalist economy and witnessed growth, many expect employment and business advantages by learning the language. Ethnic Chinese students are also interested in increasing their Chinese proficiency, Halperin said in an e-mail interview.
However, some doubt whether simply picking up the language is enough. Although people will expand their ability to travel and understand Chinese culture, knowing Chinese does not mean one is versed in local culture, said Norm Matloff, professor of computer science.
“They know when they see someone that’s not a local, even if they’re ethnic Chinese,” Matloff said. “The optimal person is someone who grew up in China, and went to college here, and then goes back to China.”
Matloff also created KuaiXue, one of the first Chinese learning software dictionaries. The program allows users to move their mouse over Chinese characters and see the Pinyin, or English pronunciation and the definition.
Modern iterations include Perapera-kun and Zhong Wen, which can be downloaded as Mozilla Firefox add-ons.
Commenting on the role of technology in learning language, Matloff said such tools should be used sparingly as a means to facilitate learning rather than as a primary resource.
“I think computers are used too much in education,” Matloff said. “I don’t think they should be used for every little thing. I think it detracts from learning in many cases. “
Matloff’s expectation of his own software is that it be useful for intermediate learners, who can avoid the laborious task of searching Chinese characters by hand.
Chinese instructors also agree that technology supplements the learning experience. Chu said computer software and online tools, such as audio editing and e-flash cards, are helpful in the classroom.
“Technology is very useful in the sense of bringing great vibrancy and live contexts to the language class, and bringing a lot of convenience and great efficiency for both teaching and learning.”
LESLIE TSAN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.