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Chinese Takes Over in American Schools

American school systems, often strapped for cash and forced to divert resources toward preparing kids for standardized achievement tests, have been slowly decreasing their foreign-language offerings. According to the New York Times, “thousands” of American schools have dropped languages from their foreign-language programs in the past decade. Japanese has been especially affected, but the number of schools offering instruction in European languages like French and German is also declining.

However, even though the study of foreign languages in general has declined, the number of American students learning Chinese is on the increase. Over the past 10 years, the number of American schools teaching Chinese has increased substantially, from around 300 to around 1,600.

There are a couple of different factors driving this trend. One reason, of course, is China’s growing economic clout. Another is the fact that the Chinese government, through Hanban, a language council affiliated with the Chinese Education Ministry, sponsors Chinese “guest teachers” to come to the US and teach. Hanban contributes $13,000 toward each guest teacher’s salary, with the school district paying the rest. To a school district having trouble making ends meet, the extra money makes a big difference.

For example, here’s what Parthena Draggett, the director of the world languages department at Ohio’s Jackson High School, told the New York Times:

“We were able to get a free Chinese teacher. I’d like to start a Spanish program for elementary children, but we can’t get a free Spanish teacher.”

So far, Hanban, which works with the College Board to administer the guest teacher program, has sent 325 teachers to teach in US schools. The two organizations also offer a program that subsidizes trips to China for American educators. It’s wonderful that more American students are learning Chinese, and that the program helps cash-poor school districts offer more foreign language classes. At the same time, it’s sad that other foreign language offerings are becoming scarcer, especially in the younger grades, when it’s easier to learn a new language.

The New York Times Now Speaks Chinese

Last week, the New York Times learned a new language: Chinese. The US-based media company launched a Chinese-language website last Thursday at cn.nytimes.com.

According to the New York Times’ Media Decoder blog, a majority of the content will consist of existing articles that have been translated into Chinese. However, approximately 1/3 of it is expected to be original, created by freelance contributors and the newspapers’ Chinese reporters and staff.

What prompted the new site? As always, business considerations were part of the motivation. As the Media Decoder blog pointed out, China’s rapidly growing, conspicuously consuming upper class has become a prize demographic for advertisers. Denise F. Warren, the paper’s chief advertising officer, said that advertisers acquired so far have been “generally luxury manufacturers. But I believe there will also be an opportunity for corporate and financial advisers. We believe we will be reaching a global, well-educated, international audience.”

The other motivation, according to a New York Times statement to its readers, is to “provide China’s growing number of educated, affluent, global citizens with high-quality coverage of world affairs, business and culture.”

Successfully reporting on certain topics is likely to be a little bit more difficult than selling ads, but the company pledged to do its best. The website will be hosted on servers in Hong Kong, and there are no plans to become an official Chinese media company. As foreign editor Joseph Kahn put it,

“We’re not tailoring it to the demands of the Chinese government, so we’re not operating like a Chinese media company. China operates a very vigorous firewall. We have no control over that. We hope and expect that Chinese officials will welcome what we’re doing.”

Thus far, it seems the road may have been a bit rockier than the New York Times would have liked. The Guardian is reporting that two of the sites’ social media accounts were suspended for several hours following the launch, though the Times was happy with the traffic it has received since the site went online.

Chinese Language Teacher Becomes Internet Celebrity

In China, Jessica Beinecke is kind of  a big deal.

The 27-year-old language teacher has become an internet celebrity for her work on OMG Meiyu (OMG American English), a YouTube program produced by Voice of America that teaches American slang terms like “twerk” and “swag” to Mandarin speakers.  She also has two programs of her own: Crazy Fresh Chinese, which teaches English-speaking students how to say words like “totes” and “hipster” in Mandarin, and Bai Jie LaLaLa. Like OMG Meiyu, Bai Jie LaLaLa is aimed at Chinese speakers.

With her offbeat, bubbly personality and model-pretty good looks, Ms. Beinecke ( Bai Jie to her Chinese audience) has attracted a loyal army of fans, including 400,000 followers on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.

Why the focus on slang, especially the type of slang words that more conservative English scholars see as a sign of the coming apocalypse? Ms. Beinecke told the Wall Street Journal that the show’s format makes the language more accessible to young students:

“I kind of spice it up and give them something to use. They can say when they go to Starbucks, ‘Hey, get me a zhong bei dou na tie – give me a medium soy latte. It’s something they can use in the moment. So I think that’s what really connects.”

The effect goes both ways, also making Mandarin more relatable to an American audience, she says:

“The looks on their faces when they learn there’s a word for swag and twerk in Mandarin, they instantly have this new connection to Mandarin and they can more instantly relate to a language that they thought up to that point was foreign to them.”

The videos are fun, bite-sized and almost addictive. For example,  if you’ve ever wondered how to say “hipster” in Mandarin, wonder no more: