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Thursday, March 1, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle schools get a taste of Mandarin

Seattle Times staff reporter

Two whirlwind weeks after her arrival in Seattle, Zhu Dan's students can count to 10 in Mandarin, pronounce the Chinese names she gave them and sing a song about Chinese New Year to the tune of "My Darling Clementine."

Each day in her four classes at three West Seattle schools, she swiftly leads students through pronunciation drills and vocabulary exercises -- there's so much to teach in her 18-month stint as one of first 34 "guest teachers" hired under a new partnership between China and the College Board.

Zhu Dan is one small part of her country's large-scale efforts to promote Mandarin as a must-learn language of the future.

The Chinese government, through an institute called Hanban, has launched a number of initiatives over the past few years to spread the study of Chinese language and culture around the globe. It is sending guest teachers to large countries such as the United States, and smaller ones such as Sudan.

It has opened "Confucius Institutes" in more than 100 countries to fulfill the desire of a growing number of foreigners who want to learn Mandarin -- and to create even more demand. Most recently, the ribbon was cut at a new institute at Portland State University.

Americans "have realized China is a force to be reckoned with," said Michele Anciaux Aoki, a member of the steering committee for the Washington State Coalition for International Education and one of the people working to open a Confucius Institute here.

"China," she said, "is part of our future."

At the moment, however, just 24,000 students in the U.S. are studying Mandarin, according to the College Board. In China, roughly 200 million students are learning English, a required subject in Chinese schools from the third grade on. The College Board's partnership with Hanban is one effort to even out that disparity.

The program involves more than guest teachers. Hanban is offering summer institutes in China where American teachers of Chinese can improve their skills. China also is helping the College Board develop a new Advanced Placement test for Chinese. (The board is a nonprofit group that, among other things, administers Advanced Placement exams and the SAT.)

The first group of guest teachers, including Zhu Dan, arrived in January and fanned out to 19 states. Another 100 will arrive this summer. Plans call for up to 250 by 2009.

Before they arrived, the teachers took a two-week crash course in Beijing on American culture and education. They learned how to write a check (rare in China), how to identify U.S. coins, how American schools work.

In addition to Zhu Dan, a second teacher is now working in the Peninsula School District in Gig Harbor and a third, part of a similar program, is at St. George's, a private school in Spokane.

Zhu Dan works at three Seattle schools -- Denny Middle, Madison Middle and Chief Sealth High.

Hanban pays the guest teachers a stipend. The host schools provide housing and pay for airfare and other fees. The teachers sign up for 18 months and can renew for an additional year. Zhu Dan is living with Sealth teacher Frank Cantwell and his family.

Zhu Dan's students have asked many questions she says she didn't expect in a country where she'd heard people value privacy. They wanted to know her age (31). Whether she's married (yes). Where she's from (Kunming in southwest China, known as the city of eternal spring).

In Kunming, she teaches English to college students. She applied for the College Board program for the opportunity to improve her English skills and increase Americans' understanding of China.

Students say they signed up for Zhu Dan's classes because they sounded interesting, or because a friend or family member speaks Chinese.

"I always thought Chinese would be kind of cool," said Phan Trung, 14, a student at Denny.

Some people question the motives behind Hanban's programs, but others say they're no different from efforts such as the United Kingdom's British Council, or the U.S.'s Voice of America.

Many add that there is no downside to Americans learning Chinese, especially in Washington state, which does a lot of trade with China.

"It behooves everyone in this state to know more about China," said Anand Yang, director of the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. Interest in China is growing here, apart from Hanban's overtures.

More and more schools offer Chinese language instruction, especially now that there will be an Advanced Placement test in that subject. Edmonds-Woodway High hired its first Chinese-language teacher this year, for example, and Mercer Island High hired its second. Newport, Sammamish and Snohomish high schools started AP Chinese courses.

Seattle Public Schools recently received a federal grant to offer Chinese at three elementary schools -- Beacon Hill, Graham Hill and John Muir. The district also will be able to train more Chinese-language teachers with that money.

Still, Sealth now is the only Seattle high school with a Mandarin class, and it now meets after school, with plans to make it a regular class next fall. Teachers who can teach Mandarin are not easy to find. The guest teacher program is designed to get classes started, with hopes schools can find a permanent teacher to continue them.

Sealth High Principal John Boyd traveled to China as part of a Hanban program, and came back inspired to offer Chinese at his school. He and Noah Zeichner, head of Sealth's world languages department, wanted to expand the Sealth's international focus, which already includes an exchange program with students from Chongqing.

The school this fall will also debut the rigorous International Baccalaureate program, through which students can earn college credits. Boyd also is encouraging principals in West Seattle elementary schools to apply for a second guest teacher to make West Seattle a hub for Mandarin instruction.

Zhu Dan will stay long enough to get that started. Her goal, she says, is to leave students with enough Chinese to survive if they travel to China, and to share insights into her country as well.

During a numbers lesson at Sealth, she stops to explain why Chinese people consider some numbers lucky -- and unlucky. The number four, for example, sounds similar to the Mandarin word for "death." While she's not particularly superstitious, she told students that she has avoided apartments with that number.

Her adjustment to U.S. classrooms hasn't been too difficult, she says.

Still, her main challenge at home is to get her college students to speak up. Here, she says, it's to keep them from speaking up so much.

Her first week, she lost her voice.

"I thought it's freedom, freedom, freedom," she said of American classrooms. "So I gave them too much freedom."

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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