It takes brute memorization, meticulous pronunciation, and compared with Spanish, a good deal more time spent in bug-eyed incomprehension. Nevertheless, American students are clamoring to learn Chinese. The problem: There aren't enough teachers to meet the demand.
Enrollment has soared, going from 5,000 primary and secondary school students in 2000 to estimates as high as 50,000 today, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. When the College Board surveyed schools in 2004 about their interest in a Chinese advanced-placement test, 2,400 schools expressed interest – but many also said they couldn't find a teacher to start a program.
Three years later, the topic still tops concerns. At the first national conference of Chinese teachers, held in San Francisco earlier this month, school administrators spoke of beating a path to China and its roughly 1 billion speakers of Mandarin in search of teachers. Superintendents are also keeping an eye on the growing number of college graduates from Asian-language programs, as well as tapping Saturday schools that teach Chinese-American children their ancestral tongue.
Just as the United States has built up a huge trade deficit with China, the teacher shortage reveals America's language deficit. In China, some 200 million students are studying English through programs put in place decades ago. In the US, the sudden attention on Mandarin has exposed a serious lack of infrastructure.
"In our education system, world language has always been marginalized, and Chinese is even more on the outside," says Shuhan Wang, head of Chinese language initiatives at the Asia Society in New York. "That the world is speaking English is really a double-edged sword for the American people. It makes it easier for us [Americans].... The problem is that people understand us, but we don't comprehend them at all."
To seed Chinese programs here, school districts are using guest-worker visas to bring over teachers from China and Taiwan. Another 34 schools this January received teachers from China through a new program set up by the College Board and Hanban, a Chinese government organization. Participating schools pay about $3,500 and agree to provide housing and local transportation to the teacher for two years, with the option to extend the contract for one more year. By 2009, the program hopes to bring as many as 250 teachers to the US.
Native teachers have strong language skills, but their temporary stays limit the depth of programs here. More important, cultural differences come into sharp focus when East meets West.
"In China or Taiwan, you don't talk back to your teachers. What the teacher says goes," says Heather Lin, assistant to the head of school at the Chinese American International School (CAIS) in San Francisco. "We have had one of our teachers who came to CAIS after having taught in China for nine years. She came from a classroom of 60 students in China, to a class of 16 here, and she said it was so much more work to teach the 16."
The American model emphasizes "talking back" in the good sense of interactive learning. And the smaller number of students means that the teaching should be more individually tailored. That's a tall order for some foreign teachers, especially when classrooms have students with widely different abilities, backgrounds, and behaviors.
Most observers agree that temporary foreign teachers are not a permanent solution. Instead, they look to the roughly 6,000 teachers and 150,000 students in the Saturday schools to eventually fulfill the demand for teachers in public schools.
But several factors keep the Chinese-American community from playing a bigger role in bridging the cultural gap, says June Gordon, an education professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Many, especially in the San Francisco area, come from families who either speak Cantonese, an entirely different Chinese dialect, or an imperfect version of Mandarin.
Meanwhile, more recent immigrants have high aspirations that lead them to dissuade their children from teaching, according to surveys by Dr. Gordon. While traditionally teachers were held in high regard in China, she says, these immigrant parents left the country after respect for the profession had begun to drop dramatically as incomes from private- sector jobs eclipsed teacher pay.
Those former students and current teachers of Saturday schools who are interested in full-time teaching often lack modern education training and state certification, say Dr. Wang. To fill in these gaps, the federal government is pouring money into programs to help Chinese speakers get certification, and states are working to standardize their requirements.
Some universities, like Rutgers in New Jersey, offer teacher training for mid-career professionals.
The vast majority of students taking the language in US public schools are not of Chinese heritage, according to an ongoing survey by the Chinese Language Association of Secondary- Elementary Schools. The difficulty of the language – ranked among the hardest for English speakers and requiring the memorization of thousands of characters – is part of the attraction for some students, say teachers.