SEPTEMBER 10, 2012, 12:48 AM

Making Mandarin Mandatory — in U.S. Kindergartens


HONG KONG – Bibb County sits smack-dab in the center of Georgia, and 150 years ago it was at the very center of the Confederacy. Its foundries supplied weapons and ammunition to the rebel army, and no county supplied a larger percentage of its men to the cause. Toward the end of the Civil War, the only local men not carrying a musket for the South were elderly, blind or disabled.

Times are still tough in Bibb County. Some 20 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, and its public schools are among the lowest performing in the state. About half the kids don’t graduate from high school.

But the county has just embarked on a bold plan to have all its children fully bilingual – in English and Mandarin – by the time they graduate from high school. In recent weeks, children from pre-kindergarten through third grade began mandatory Mandarin classes, part of a curriculum that in three years will include middle school and high school students.

“Students who are in elementary school today, by 2050 they’ll be at the pinnacle of their career,” the school superintendent Romain Dallemand said in an interview that aired Saturday on NPR. “They will live in a world where China and India will have 50 percent of the world GDP. They will live in a world where, if they cannot function successfully in the Asian culture, they will pay a heavy price.”

The new curriculum has had some pushback, to say the least, and the word communism has often been raised. Jane Drennan, a deputy superintendent, told a TV station in Macon, the county seat, that she and other school officials had heard from many parents who said, “I don’t want my kid learning Chinese.”

“I understand there may be some fears involved in moving a different culture into our community,” Ms. Drennan said. “People have concerns we won’t be teaching English as much, which is not true. This is an addition to our curriculum.”

Ms. Drennan said learning another language, whether it’s Chinese or French, “enhances your learning in everything else.”

“Bibb County is not known for producing the highest-achieving graduates,” Dina McDonald, a Macon resident and the mother of a ninth-grader, told NPR. “You’ll see that many of them can’t even speak basic English.”

“Do you want to teach them how to say, ‘Do you want fries with that?’ in Mandarin?”

A number of parents have asked why Spanish is not the default second language, especially with the increasing number of Hispanic residents in the county.

“My wife is a Latina, and so I fully understand,” said Mr. Dallemand, who was born in Haiti, adding a saying from Arthur C. Clarke: “It is important for communities to educate our children for their future, not our past.”

The new Mandarin teachers, about 25 in all, are being supplied by the Confucius Institute at Kennesaw State University, north of Atlanta. Hailing from mainland China, the teachers live in the local Bibb County communities, teach and work full-time at the schools and cost the district $16,000 each.

For the past three weeks, Jie Jiang has been teaching second-graders at Burdell-Hunt Elementary School in Macon. She told the Macon Telegraph that the “kids are really nice and they learn fast.” And the newspaper’s story described this classroom scene:

During Wednesday’s class, students practiced saying “good morning,” “good afternoon” and “good evening” aloud as Jiang held flashcards depicting different times of day.

“Now let’s see if you can write some Chinese,” Jiang said after the flashcard exercise. “This is a little difficult, but I think you can do it.”

On the board, Jiang wrote the characters for “good evening,” pronounced “wan shang hao.”

Second-grader Immanuel Hawkins volunteered for the task, writing his characters underneath Jiang’s and beaming when she congratulated him in Mandarin.

The Confucius Institutes, organized and financed by the Chinese government, are now located in about 70 colleges and universities in the United States, and there are a couple hundred more worldwide. Part of Beijing’s soft power efforts abroad, the institutes are often welcomed by host schools as ready-made Chinese-language departments.

The first institute was set up at the University of Maryland, in 2004, and the program there has had “no interference and no pressure at all” from the Beijing government or the sponsoring school, Nankai University, according to the program director, Chuan Sheng Liu, a physics professor at Maryland.

My colleague D.D. Guttenplan reported in March on the controversy that sometimes surrounds the government-run Confucius Institutes:

To proponents, the institutes offer a chance for greater engagement with one of the oldest civilizations in the world – and the fastest-rising power of the new millennium. For cash-strapped university administrators, the institutes can seem like a godsend, bringing not just Beijing-trained and -financed language teachers and textbooks but also money for a director’s salary and a program of public events.

“When you set up a Confucius Institute you get a ready-made partner,” said Nick Byrne, executive director of the Confucius Institute at the London School of Economics, which is paired with Tsinghua University in Beijing. Tsinghua sends Chinese language teachers to London; the institute also funds a number of scholarships at Tsinghua for British graduate students.

Critics worry that such largess comes with strings attached.

“There is a whole list of proscribed topics,” said June Teufel Dreyer, who teaches Chinese government and foreign policy at the University of Miami. “You’re told not to discuss the Dalai Lama – or to invite the Dalai Lama to campus. Tibet, Taiwan, China’s military buildup, factional fights inside the Chinese leadership – these are all off limits.”

In a 2010 story in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ms. Dreyer said the institutes “perform a propaganda function.”

“It would be stupid,” she said, “for the Chinese government to spend money on something that did not further its interests.”