Students today live in a world where building connections with other cultures is as easy as turning on their phones.
Thanks to video chats, Skype, FaceTime and Google Hangouts, it only takes a few clicks to find yourself in a face-to-face conversation with someone on the other side of the globe. The easy access technology, combined with an increasingly diverse world population, means that as adults, students will undoubtedly find themselves talking regularly with coworkers, clients and others internationally, no matter the geographical boundaries.
The ability to communicate with China is of particular importance because of its size and political and economic significance. Technology may make it easier to connect with China, but effective communication relies on an understanding of the country’s language and culture. Schools are responding — the College Board launched its AP Chinese Language and Culture course in 2006, and more schools are adding Chinese as a language option for students in all grades.
In 2004, the nonprofit Asia Society and the College Board identified 263 Chinese language programs in U.S. primary and secondary schools. Four years later, the number had risen to 779, a more than 200 percent increase. A survey in 2010 from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages estimated that nearly 60,000 K-12 students were learning Chinese in public schools.
Students at Corbett Preparatory School of IDS take Spanish starting at age 3 and have the option to enroll in a Chinese elective in middle school. One of the unique aspects of the middle school course is that it is actually taught from China. An instructor from the city of Shenzhen appears via webcam in a Corbett Prep classroom. He can see the students and calls on them throughout the class and students watch him as he writes on the board and explains the day’s lessons.
Mark Xing, the teacher, is the director of teaching affairs in the middle school department of the Second Foreign Languages School of Nanshan. Xing emails worksheets to the school and a teacher sits with the students while he teaches.
Finding qualified Chinese language teachers to match the growing interest in the programs poses a challenge for schools. Several schools nationally rely on guest teachers who come from China for a period of time, allowing American children to learn from someone fluent in the language who can help them develop correct pronunciation and writing techniques. Corbett Prep’s arrangement uses technology to achieve the same goals for its students.
Students especially benefit from Xing’s knowledge of his country’s culture. His lessons go beyond the mechanics of the language. He tells stories about why some of the Chinese characters look the way they do and shares China’s customs and traditions. Students can explore with him the differences between an American and Chinese classroom. Such discussions help foster an understanding and appreciation of the Chinese culture, qualities that can make students better communicators when they venture out into the global marketplace.
Students in the class are enjoying their opportunity to visit China virtually. Some just enjoy a love of learning languages. Other families are thinking ahead. One seventh grader said his mother is encouraging him to learn more languages so “when I get older, if I have coworkers from different countries, I can speak with them in their native language.”
We can only imagine the technological advancements that will exist by the time students of today enter the workforce. The world will continue to get smaller as it increases in diversity. Technology can bring us together, but exposure to international languages and cultures will set the framework for stronger and more effective relationships worldwide.
Students of all ages benefit from learning a second language! But some studies have pointed to specific advantages for children who learn it early. Children who learn another language before adolescence sets in are more likely to develop pronunciation like native speakers. An early start also helps them reach levels of fluency by high school or college when compared with students who are only beginning to enroll in that language as teens.
Beyond the ability to speak with people from other backgrounds, the experience of learning another language can benefit students in other areas of their schooling outside linguistics. Children who study languages have shown improved school performance, higher standardized test scores and strong problem-solving skills, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics.
Parents can begin by encouraging an interest in languages at home. Here are some ways to start.
- If you know another language, read or speak to your child in it. Even introducing one word at a time is helpful.
- Attend cultural events featuring foods, dance or music from the country you are studying.
- Look for bilingual toys or games to make learning fun for young children.
- Find opportunities to practice language skills with parents, community groups or pen pals.
- Ask your child for help to label common household items with their names in another language.
- Try a restaurant that specializes in the foods from the country.
Cindy Strickland is the associate director of middle school and a math and creative writing teacher at Corbett Preparatory School of IDS, which offers the International Baccalaureate program of study for prekindergarten through eighth grade, and an adjunct professor at the University of Tampa.