A new and increasingly popular foreign language will be added to the list of electives at Altadena School next year.
Kyrene School District announced last week that “based on student interest,” Mandarin Chinese will be offered for the first time in the school year beginning this August at both Altadena and Kyrene Middle School.
The announcement also said the district has hired Zhe Kang as the Mandarin Chinese teacher at Altadena.
A native of Changchun, China, Kang has taught Mandarin for four years in the U.S. and “has a strong background in curriculum and instruction,” the district’s announcement said.
She has an English degree and a master’s degree from universities in China as well as a master’s in human development and psychology from Harvard.
Altadena is also hosting a Mandarin information night 6-7 p.m. tomorrow, May 17, in the school multipurpose room for interested families and students. Officials will discuss the program, introduce Kang and give an overview of Tempe Union High School District’s Mandarin courses.
Mandarin Chinese is becoming an increasingly popular foreign language in many area school districts, and interest in some is as great as it is in Spanish.
Mandarin is the official language of China and Taiwan, and in many of those districts, teachers try to engage students in Mandarin by educating them about the culture through Chinese New Year celebrations and other activities.
Students make arts and crafts, write in calligraphy and create and eat traditional foods in classes.
The children and teens also frequently speak the language on campus as their teachers recognize that familiarity with the language can open many doors in the business world and help students impress universities.
Students in Seton’s Mandarin classes are pen pals with English-speaking students at a school in Taipei.
Seton junior Shea Eubanks, 17, said Mandarin is “complicated, but it’s really interesting” because the language has no alphabet and the tone of voice used is the key to the appropriate pronunciation.
Four tones of voice are used in Mandarin. For example, the word spelled in English “ma,” has different meanings including “mother” and “horse” depending on the tone of voice expressed.
One tool some teachers use to help students overcome their hesitancy to speak Mandarin is playing games.
Harrison Kominski, 17, an Ahwatukee junior at Seton, likes the hands-on aspect of the Mandarin 2 class.
“It’s nice because it’s a bit different than a class where you have to learn this and this,” Kominski said.
Experts say it is easier for people to learn new languages the younger they are.
Students in Arizona can earn a Seal of Biliteracy when they graduate from high school if they show proficiency in English and at least one other language. Last year was the first year graduating seniors in the state could get it on their diplomas.
In the 2016-17 school year, 316 graduating seniors from seven different school districts and charter schools earned the seal for their proficiency in four different languages: Mandarin, Spanish, French and German, according to the Arizona Department of Education.
The Confucius Institute at Arizona State University provides support to a number of schools. The institute, an educational organization affiliated with the Ministry of Education for the People’s Republic of China, tries to promote the Chinese language and culture by supporting Chinese teaching around the world and facilitating cultural exchanges.
Institute Director Robert Joe Cutter, who is also a professor of Chinese in the School of International Letters and Cultures at ASU, said, “With any language, the earlier you start the better.” Cutter said.
“There’s a big demand on the part of parents to have their kids start learning early. They want them to be in language immersion programs,” he noted, adding that his institute also helps districts find qualified Mandarin teachers, usually China natives who emiograted here.
He added that China is “undeniably a place of importance historically, culturally, economically and politically.”
“The better we as Americans understand it, the better informed our decisions and opinions are going to be,” Cutter said. “So many activities including business, but not just business, have a global aspect to it. I’ve lived in both China and Taiwan in the past.”
He said he believes the Chandler Unified School District is “doing a great job” with its Mandarin programs.
“They’re very enthusiastic,” Cutter said. “They’re terrific. I would encourage students in this area who are considering going to college and studying Chinese to study at ASU. I don’t believe they’ll find a better program anywhere.”