Expanding Chinese Language Capacity in the United States

Expanding Chinese Language Capacity in the U.S.

What would it take to have five percent of American high school students learning Chinese by 2015? This essay recommends a national commitment and investments in teaching Chinese language and culture. Created by Asia Society, the report documents a growing consensus among national security and business leaders, educators and foreign language experts. Its analysis of the current status of Chinese language instruction concludes that the current infrastructure to support recruitment of students and teachers as well as the growth of high quality programs is woefully inadequate. The study suggests short- and long-range strategies.

Increasingly leaders across public and private sectors are recognizing the rise of Asia as one of the central facts of the twenty-first century. China, with its tremendous economic growth and emergence as a social and political leader in the region, is fundamental to this shift. Given these changes, the task of increasing the number of American students who can demonstrate a functional proficiency in Chinese is undeniably urgent. Interest in learning Chinese is steadily growing among American youth, but the number of existing school programs is small and the present infrastructure to meet this demand is weak.

In order to address this disparity between need and limited capacity for teaching Chinese language, Asia Society convened a meeting in April 2005 to address a critical question: What would it take to have 5 percent of American high school students learning Chinese by 2015? This report is based on a background paper prepared for the meeting as well as the resulting discussion.

Download the report

If we are to build the infrastructure to support a K16 pipeline of Chinese-language learners to meet national needs, three critical issues must be addressed:

  • creating a supply of Chinese-language teachers;
  • increasing the number and quality of school programs; and

  • developing appropriate curriculum, materials, and assessments, including technology-based delivery systems.

During the meeting, important new developments in the field as well as some short- and long-term strategies were identified. The report discusses these issues and potential solutions in greater detail, but the key points were as follows:

Tap into Major Developments to Advance the Field. The following initiatives lay a solid foundation upon which the field can begin to expand its capacity:

  • Advanced Placement (AP) Course and Examination in Chinese Language (Mandarin) and Culture to be offered nationally to high schools by the College Board beginning in fall 2006;
  • CHENGO, an online game-based program for beginning Chinese, developed jointly by the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China and the U.S. Department of Education and availablefree of charge to pilot schools; and program in local K–12 schools.
  • The Chinese K16 Pipeline Project of the National Security Education Program (NSEP), which will establish a third university Chinese-language flagship program that includes a model feeder


  1. Take Both Short- and Long-Term Approaches to Create a Supply of Qualified Chinese-Language Teachers. Lack of teachers is the key bottleneck to building capacity in Chinese. In the short term, to expedite the creation of a pool of qualifi ed Chinese teachers,states should work with institutions of higher education to create high-quality, “fast-track,” alternate routes to teacher certification for Chinese speakers in the United States; pilot visiting-faculty programs for teachers from China; use technology and multimedia to supplement the shortage of full-time Chinese teachers in classrooms; and explore a multistate system to certify Chinese-language teachers. In the long term, it will be necessary for higher education institutions to invest in full-length teacher preparation programs, similar to those used for other languages, and to extend professional development opportunities to Chinese-language teachers. We need to take unconventional approaches in this area, building supply and demand simultaneously.

  2. Leverage Growing Interest to Expand and Improve Chinese-Language Programs. The level of interest in establishing Chinese language programs in K12 schools is rising rapidly. A 2004 survey found that 2,400 high schools would be interested in offering theAP in Chinese language and culture. Most of these schools, however, do not currently offer Chinese. In order to translate this interest into quality programs, best practices from existing programs must be disseminated through a handbook on establishing Chinese-languageprograms and through the development of a technical assistance center or network. Beyond this, reaching a goal of 5 percent of U.S. students studying Chinese by 2015 will also require public education campaigns to raise awareness among educators, students, and parents of the growing importance of Chinese; competitive seed funds to make programs available in less affluent school districts; and articulated K–12 or K–16 models to demonstrate how students can attain high levels of proficiency and achievement.

  3. Incorporate Research and Technology to Develop Effective Curriculum, Materials, Assessment, and Delivery Systems. Although the supply of teaching materials is growing, they are unevenly developed. Appropriate research-based materials, curriculum, and assessments must be developed in accordance with widely divergent levels of students and types of programs. Innovative ways of using media and technology (television, distance learning, online courses, and communities) to enhance language instruction and broaden access should have high priority.

  4. Make a Long-Term Commitment to Invest in the Future. The expansion of capacity in Chinese language will require innovations and investments similar to those in other fields deemed important to the nation. The National Defense Education Act, passed in 1958, after the launching of Sputnik, supported a range of strategies to meet science and foreign-language needs, including teacher training, scholarships for study abroad, and seed funds for language programs in K–12 schools. Today’s economic and national security challenges mandate a larger pool of highly profi cient speakers of a wider range of world languages, including Chinese. It is crucial that our national language investments go beyond the current support of languages in higher education to include K–12 schools. We need to begin language study in the early grades, use more intensive research-based approaches, build on the communities of heritage-language learners, and utilize new advantages that technology, easier travel, and virtual connections to schools in China allow.

This report lays out the critical issues that must be addressed and makes some suggestions about how to do so. Its purpose is to stimulate broader discussion, support, and action to expand our capacity in Chinese, a language we as a nation can no longer ignore.

Authors: Vivien Stewart and Shuhan Wang

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