By Susanna Capelouto, CNN Radio
Listen to CNN Radio's podcast on learning Chinese in U.S. schools from Susanna Capelouto.
(CNN) About 75 students at Hillsboro High School in Nashville, Tennessee, finished their first semester of Mandarin Chinese. Hillsboro Principal Terry Shrader says the inaugural class has been a success.
"We feel like, with the flattening of the world economy, that students who are able to learn some Mandarin and learn something about the Chinese culture have a leg up when they move into college and eventually the work force,” Shrader says.
Hillsboro offers the International Baccalaureate, a specialized high school diploma that focuses on global and cultural skills. Students here have to take a second language; until this year only Spanish and French were offered.
“We have a really strong world language department,” says Shrader, “but we can only expand when we have the resources.”
Those resources came from Chinese Ministry of Education though the Confucius Center at the University of Memphis. The center promotes Chinese language and culture at the university level and at high schools, says Dr. Hsiang-Te Kung, who runs the center.
“We almost provide them a free language teacher to teach the Chinese language. They also get other resources, like textbooks and technology support. So I think that helps develop the program much easier and faster.”
The Chinese Ministry of Education started the Confucius Center program in the United States in 2005. Kung says there are at least two dozen universities with Confucius Centers now in the U.S., and according to the National Association of Independent schools, there are at least 70 Confucius classrooms in U.S. schools, and the numbers are growing.
“One out of five people in the world will be Chinese, so Chinese is the most spoken language in the world,” Kung says.
The investment by the Chinese government is paying off. According to a 2008 study by the Center for Applied Linguistics, Chinese was the only language, besides Spanish, that showed significant growth in U.S. schools. Traditional languages all took a hit this past decade, says Nancy Rhodes, CAL’s director of world languages.
“French is decreasing in popularity in schools, German has decreased, Latin has decreased,” she says.
While the survey showed only 4 percent of schools offering Chinese three years ago, it marks an increase of 300 percent over a decade. Compare that with French, which was dropped by 18 percent of schools during that same period.
Some worry that the new push to study Chinese may be overrated.
“It’s a difficult language to learn, and you have to really think about the use of this language. It’s really not used worldwide; it is used in China," says Emanuel Lene, vice president of education at the French Institute Alliance Francaise in New York.
Just as the Chinese Education Ministry promotes Mandarin in foreign countries, the Alliance Francaise promotes French language and culture around the world. But unlike China,France has had to cut back on its language efforts in the United States.
“I have to admit that in the United States the efforts from the French government have diminished, because strategically we have a little less budget and they’re using their budget for promotion of French language a little differently. So, right now they’re investing more in South America,” Lene says.
Also working against European languages are efforts by the U.S. government. The Department of Defense, for example, wants more multilingual soldiers and promotes what’s known as “strategic languages.” Arabic and Chinese currently top that list.
The Department of Defense just awarded the Georgia Institute of Technology $720,000 to create a pilot program where Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) students learn Chinese. The school has been offering Mandarin to all its students for over a decade and the language is growing in popularity, says Dean Jacqueline Jones-Royster.
“China is a player on the world stage now so we have to treat them as players on the world stage,” Jones-Royster says.
And Samuel Graham, a Georgia Tech engineering student, wants to play on that stage, too. That’s why he’s studying Mandarin.
“There are so many Chinese people in the field of engineering these days that you almost have to speak the language," Graham says.
He hopes his Chinese language skills will enable him to visit China and help him improve his skills in table tennis, a major sport in the Asian country.
“I really want to learn the culture,” he says.