Studying Chinese is not for the tentative scholar. Its writing system uses several thousand characters. Pronounce "mom" in the wrong tone and you've suddenly called her a horse. Then there's the completely different set of cultural values that can test an aspiring speaker schooled in Western perspectives.
What it adds up to is the need for a lot of commitment. Just ask Cliff Shapiro. "There are times when I want to go hang out with friends and I have to do a character sheet instead," says the eighth-grader from Larchmont, N.Y. But on the whole, he insists, "It's definitely worth it."
They're sometimes called "critical" languages - for one reason or another, languages considered vital to US national interests. But despite that lofty classification, finding classes in Russian, Chinese, Japanese, or Korean in American schools can be as difficult as the languages themselves.
Yet there's evidence that an increasingly global economy is spurring more US schools to offer their students linguistic challenges beyond those of French and Spanish. Numbers remain small and are hard to pin down. Too, their popularity can fluctuate in concert with political crises or perceived market opportunity.
But for those willing to take on the daunting task of mastering difficult grammar and unfamiliar script, the rewards can be significant. Growth in discipline is a given. A wider world perspective that jibes well with the study of history is a plus. And as a nice - though frequently unexpected - benefit, the mention of Russian or Chinese study can have a certain eye-catching quality for many college admissions officers.
Chinese is one language that is clearly on the fast track. In the 1995-96 school year, 87 public and private schools taught Chinese to 8,622 students. By this year, those figures had jumped to 178 schools and 21,611 students. Of those, 7,569 were elementary school students, compared with only 2,248 in 1995-96.
The Plainview-Old Bethpage school district on New York's Long Island set up a K-4 Chinese program for all elementary school students almost five years ago, when school administrators became convinced that "it was a priority to bring in a major world language," says Elizabeth Welshofer, director of modern languages for the district.
While Chinese is growing, however, there is some evidence that the numbers of US students learning Japanese (on the rise in the 1980s) and Russian (more popular before the collapse of the Soviet Union) are declining.
So many, yet so few
The total number of students seriously studying critical languages before college, say the experts, hovers somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000.
To many, that is disappointing and shortsighted. More than 95 percent of resources expended on language study in the United States are poured into French, Spanish, and German - languages spoken by only 8 to 12 percent of the world's population, says Galal Walker, professor of Chinese at Ohio State University and past president of the National Association of Self-Instructional Language Programs.
"We don't tend to think about this, but Americans are working at a very low language level," Professor Walker says, adding that about one-fifth of the world population speaks Chinese.
But some educators say they see change on the horizon. For one thing, advances in technology mean distance learning and self-instruction can help to offset the scarcity of textbooks and instructors that often inhibits the study of such languages. In addition, a growing tendency to begin language study earlier makes it much more feasible to think about tackling the more-challenging languages.
Perhaps most important, an international business environment is pushing Americans into a new sense of linguistic urgency, despite the widespread use of English.
The US business community has become much more sophisticated about the world beyond its own borders, especially in the past 10 years, says Myriam Met, senior associate for K-12 policy analysis at the National Foreign Language Center in Washington.
Today's economy "is more far-reaching than simply selling someone widgets and taking their money," Ms. Met says. "It's service- and information-oriented." And, she continues, "a significant amount of Internet communication is non-English based."
Christine Brown says she's seen a change among parents she works with in the Glastonbury, Conn., public schools. The school system has long been known for its Russian-language program, begun in 1957 in response to US panic over the launching of the Russian satellite Sputnik. In addition, an elementary magnet school that Glastonbury jointly operates with another district now offers Japanese.
Over the years, some families have moved to the area specifically so their children could participate in the programs.
But Brown says in the past few years, parents seem to have become even more keyed in to the importance of such skills. "Parents realize the nation itself is more diverse," Brown says. "They know the study of another language makes you more open, more accepting, more tolerant."
In addition, the flow of visitors has increased. Typically, Brown says, about 100 visitors from other school districts observe the Russian and Japanese classes throughout the school year. This year, there have been more than that number already.
A certain cachet
Of course, in today's ultra-competitive academic climate, many parents and students are enthralled by the notion that the words "Russian" or "Japanese" on a high school transcript will prove irresistible to college admissions offices.
Like the Glastonbury public school system, private Buckingham Brown & Nichols School in Cambridge, Mass., has offered Russian to its students since the Sputnik era. Armen Dedekian, head of foreign languages at the school's Upper School and a teacher of Russian, says an unusual language is, in fact, a great help with college admissions.
"Our kids come back from a college interview and often tell us, 'Once they found out I took Russian that was all they wanted to talk about,' " Mr. Dedekian says.
I'd rather say it in Russki
But for the students involved, the draw is sometimes simply the chance to jump into something very different and intriguing.
Jacquelyn Puente, a junior at Glastonbury High School now into her fifth year of Russian, says she loves the fact that "you're doing something not many people do." Classmate Elliott Coley says he's made it a life goal to become fluent in Russian. "It's a great language," he says. He hopes someday to use it in a career in foreign relations or international banking.
But expanding such programs will require more than just student enthusiasm. The lack of advanced-placement tests in less commonly taught languages prevents some districts from investing in their instruction, and fear of hurting grade-point averages can keep some students away.
An increased focus on standardized testing in more-basic subjects has also been a negative. The Plainview-Old Bethpage district dropped fourth-grade Chinese this year due to pressure surrounding the standardized test the fourth-graders will face.
To Glastonbury fourth-grader Jessica Sevetson, who has studied Japanese since kindergarten, that doesn't add up.
"More schools should teach Japanese," she says, sounding just a bit impatient. "It's good to know about the rest of the world and their languages and their traditions."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society