East Meets West

The magic of Mandarin Chinese in Greenwich.

'Ni Hao' my friends - your children are learning a whole new language!

Pick up a newspaper, read a book about the global economy, stop and think about the next 100 years. Clearly, China will have a significant influence on pretty much every facet of our lives, our children’s lives and our grandchildren’s lives. With its booming industry and rapidly expanding cities, it has been predicted by many that China will soon become the world's biggest economy, surpassing the U.S. There are various dialects of Chinese already being spoken by billions worldwide, but according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, there are only 60,000 K-12 students in the United States that are studying Chinese.  Compare this with the 300 million students in China currently studying English.

Here in Greenwich, many of us are lucky if we speak another language and most likely, it is the French or Spanish that we struggled to learn in high school. But, for about 130 Greenwich High School students, they are facing the future straight on and acquiring the language skills essential to competing in the global economy - they are studying Mandarin Chinese.

According to the The American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages, "Language and communication are at the heart of the human experience. The United States must educate students who are linguistically and culturally equipped to communicate successfully in a pluralistic American society and abroad. This imperative envisions a future in which ALL students will develop and maintain proficiency in English and at least one other language, modern or classical."

Greenwich Public Schools' World Language Program "works to equip students linguistically and culturally to communicate and function in a "flat world" both as individuals and within a group,' according to the GPS website.

According to the website, "World Language study develops an awareness of other people's views, an understanding of their unique ways of life and a recognition and respect for their diversity and contributions to the world at large.  Linguistic proficiency combined with cultural knowledge will enable students to interact in a variety of real-life situations."

Marcia Schenker, Greenwich Public Schools world languages program coordinator, says GHS offered its first Chinese course 5 years ago. For the past two years, GHS had about 130 students in seven sections, ranging from level 1-4 and, for the first time starting last year, an AP course. Additionally, GHS won a grant given by the Confucius Classroom Network for $10,000, which was used for books, materials and special events for students and professional learning for staff.

While other area high school programs including , , , ,  andin Westport all have Chinese language offerings, Greenwich High School was the first.  It was thanks to parent and community advocacy which led to the adoption Mandarin into the GPS curriculum.

While the Mandarin language has 21 consonants and 16 vowels, they can be combined together to create more than 400 mono-syllabic sounds. Therefore, becoming accustomed to the Mandarin pronunciation helps with both speaking and listening skills. While the thought of learning Mandarin Chinese may seem daunting, there are some features which make Mandarin easy such as no subject/verb agreement, no tenses, no plurals and no conjugations.  

Even prior to the offerings at Greenwich High School, another group in town was committed to teaching the language. The Chinese Language School of Connecticut was started in 2002 by a group of parents who wanted their children to learn Chinese. Their vision, according to their website, was "to create a school that children looked forward to attending every week - where they could learn practical communication skills, develop a life-long appreciation for the Chinese language and culture, and build lasting friendships with their fellow students."

The mission of the Chinese Language School of Connecticut (CLSC) is to teach Mandarin Chinese as a second language to children ages 18 months and up. Their website states that their "activity-based curriculum enables students to acquire practical communication skills, develop competence and confidence, and experience the joy of learning another language."

Through early exposure to Chinese, the school seeks to provide students with a foundation for future learning and cultivate their long term interest in the language, culture and traditions of China.

CLSC initially only offered weekend classes and expected 50 students when they started. To their surprise however, 130 students signed up when began in September 2002. The school continued to grow over the next few years with the weekend program maxing out at 200 students.

With the understanding of the need for Mandarin speaking skills growing, CLSC opened corporate and weekday programs in 2009 which are held at its new program offices here in Greenwich.  CLSC continues to expand with weekend and weekday classes, Before and After School programs, arts, culture and special events. Throw in private tutoring, small group tutoring, online distance learning (iVuChinese was launched in June 2011), adult classes, corporate group classes and consulting for those visiting China, it is obvious that the need and the thirst for learning Mandarin is growing.

Susan Serven, who was one of the originators of CLSC and now president and board member, describes how her daughter Emily, now 15 and a rising sophomore, first started learning Mandarin at the Chopstix preschool program in New Canaan (which Susan happened to have founded.) After 6 years at CLSC, she is entering her third year of Chinese at New Canaan High School having skipped a year due to her studies with CLSC!

As Serven explains, “a global worldview is so crucial for today’s students and I believe learning Chinese allowed Emily to form a connection with Asian culture, which, in turn, prompted her to start her international music web site (www.kaermusic.com) a few years ago." Serven’s 11-year-old daughter Rebecca also recently graduated from CLSC with honors and does extremely well in all languages (she earned an A+ in Latin this year which Serven believes is due in part to her very early exposure to a second language, which is of course Chinese.)

Cynthia Chang Scanlan, a CLSC board director said she believes that technology will have a major impact on how students of all ages can learn a language and that the typical classroom setting will evolve into 24/7 remote accessibility. Through computers Scanlan says that the students can “hear it, see it, touch it at their own pace.” This increased access will be able to cast a wider net that reaches beyond school aged students.

To drive home just how flat the world is, First Selectman Peter Tesei spoke at last week’s Board of Selectmen meeting about attending a June 20th event at the Stamford Campus of the University of Connecticut with the Connecticut Hedge Fund Association and a business and government delegation from Shanghai.

The group hosted business representatives from Shanghai who are interested in exploring the Greenwich hedge fund community as a business model to be successful in the emerging world markets. Their intent is to establish such a hedge fund presence in Shanghai. According to Tesei, “the group from Shanghai is looking to understand what makes Greenwich such an attractive location for hedge funds to locate here.”

Tesei certainly sees the value in the ability to communicate internationally on a local level and the global impact it could have for Greenwich. “Understanding the Chinese language certain would facilitate relationship building for our community,” Tesei said.

Whether you say 'Xie Xie' (pronounced shay shay) or thank you, learning the language and culture of a country that will have major influence for years to come is your ticket to the world.

Laurie Heiss Grealy July 12, 2011 at 02:54 AM
Sue, kudos for another well written article and educational piece! Along with parent and community supporters, the many students who advocated for Mandarin "right away", were incredibly effective spokespeople. Now, six years later, most of them are still studying Mandarin and it has already shaped their lives. They have bright futures...they are culturally knowledgeable about life and business in China. We have the 2005 Board of Ed to thank for their united support & a two-month launch into action, and we appreciate the foresight of Marcia Schenker in hiring Linda Young, Yuan Lao Shi, at GHS - whose teaching roots were with the formidable Chinese Language School of CT. That Greenwich Public School process; from public hearing, to decision, through budget and hiring, to launching Mandarin classes at GHS took 10 months. Thank you for your article about and attention to the Mandarin program.


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