Red Hot China

Study of the country and its language is booming at U.S. colleges -- and changes in high schools may swell enrollments further.
October 28, 2005

At Northwestern University this fall, there are two sections of third-year Chinese, the first time ever that a second section has been needed. At Yale University, enrollment in introductory Chinese is up 68 percent from last year, and for the first time professors can remember, significant numbers of freshmen are arriving with enough Chinese to start in second- or third-year Chinese.

While national data are not available for this year, experts agree that colleges are seeing an unprecedented boom in the study of Chinese, and also study in English of Chinese history, economics and society.

"Chinese is the new Russian," says Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, referring to the Cold War period when colleges couldn't increase programs in Russia fast enough.

As dramatic as some of the enrollment increases colleges are already seeing are, they may be a fraction of what is to come. Next year, the College Board will offer an Advanced Placement test in Chinese for the first time, as part of an expansion that is also introducing AP tests in Italian, Japanese and Russian. As with all AP language courses, several years of language study would be required before the test. Earlier this year, the College Board surveyed high schools, asking if they planned to offer the new AP language courses. Board officials expected a few hundred would indicate interest in each of the new language programs. That was true for all except Chinese, for which 2,400 high schools indicated that they planned to build their Chinese programs to levels where students could take the AP exam.

"We were incredibly surprised by the tremendous level of interest," says Thomas Matts, director of the AP Program's World Languages Initiative. The pool of new college students demanding courses in Chinese will almost certainly skyrocket, he says, since a language as difficult to learn as Chinese does not attract the casual student.

To appreciate the significance of having 2,400 high schools teaching AP Chinese, consider how low enrollments in the language have been historically. In 2002, the last year of a national study on foreign language enrollments, just over 34,000 college students were enrolled, according to the MLA. That represented a 20 percent increase from 1998, but a fraction of the nearly 750,000 studying Spanish.

While colleges track language enrollments in different ways, nearly all with Chinese programs are seeing increases at both the beginning and advanced levels. At the University of California at Los Angeles, for example, there are 369 students enrolled in first-year Chinese this fall, up from 276 three years ago. Enrollment in third-year (advanced) Chinese is 47, up from 30 three years ago. At the University of California at Berkeley, enrollment in all Chinese language courses this fall is 548, up from 462 three years ago.

At Yale, faculty members have always assumed that four years of Chinese instruction would be enough for undergraduates. But Haun Saussy, a professor of comparative literature and East Asian languages and literatures, says that the university no longer assumes that fifth-year Chinese is just for graduate students. "We've got real student pressure for more classes at the advanced level," he says.

More undergraduates are also taking at least one course in classical Chinese language, he says, which is vital for advanced study of China because it is still used in many key documents.

While some of the interest is cultural or comes from students from families with ties to China, Saussy says that most of the students see Chinese as something that will help them stand out professionally in business, government or other fields. "There is more awareness of how important China is," he says. "If you are going into business, China may be a source of suppliers or consumers. If I were going to be an economist, I would think studying Chinese would be an extremely interesting investment to make."

Feal considers it great news that students see their future job ambitions helped by Chinese. "Whatever motivates people to understand that English is not enough to interact globally is a good thing," she says. "It's a wonderful thing. It's a relief to hear MBA students saying that they want advanced proficiency in Chinese."

The push for advanced study is particularly notable, she says. Students don't pick up introductory Chinese without daily, intense study, frequently twice the time that students might spend on a Western language or another introductory course. "You have to have enough contact hours a week to make it meaningful," she says. "This isn't just an elective where you can say, 'Here it is. Take it.' "

At the same time that colleges are attracting more students to language courses, they are also adding other China programs. Saussy of Yale says that the university is preparing to start an exchange program in which Yale students will live in dormitories and study at Peking University. While Yale professors will teach in China, the students will also be expected to take regular courses at the university. Saussy says that there is more confidence in the educational opportunities in China because some of the brightest Chinese students who have studied in the United States have returned home. So there is now a critical mass of Chinese professors who understand American higher education, he says.

"I think we are entering a period of more intense exchanges and relationships," says Saussy. "It's more interesting from both sides. On their side, there are more people who have studied abroad and come back, and that creates a dialogue that is very interesting. The American participants are not going to introduce America and the west, but to talk about something both sides know a great deal about."

Many other colleges are also expanding programs involving study of China. Cornell University this fall started a new major in China and Asia-Pacific Studies, in which students will study in Ithaca, Washington, D.C., and Beijing.

The Cornell program requires significant language study, but other colleges are expanding China offerings for students who may never speak very much Chinese, but want to know more about the country.

George Wei, chair of the history department at Susquehanna University, has led student trips to China several times, but this summer he is planning to set up an academic program in which he and three other faculty members will teach Susquehanna students from a campus in Shanghai. Since 1999, when the university first started offering Chinese language instruction (to 6 students), interest has grown such that there are now twice that many enrolled.

But Wei says that many other students want to understand the history and culture. The other professors who will be teaching specialize in environmental science, economics and finance -- showing the range of topics in which students want to understand China's role.

Similarly, the State University of New York at Buffalo is among many institutions that are hiring more China specialists. Typically, Buffalo has had China scholars in the history and literature departments. But in recent years, the university has hired China experts for positions in anthropology, communication, art history and linguistics.

Thomas W. Burkman, director of Asian studies at Buffalo, says that the growth reflects increased interest by American students in China and also a realization of more departments that Chinese graduate students can contribute to their vitality.

"What I see is two things," Burkman says. "One is a growing recognition that China is a significant part of world culture and society and learning about it is of concrete benefit and interest to our students. The second point is that both the number and quality of graduate students from China leads departments to want to hire faculty mentors who will be able to work with them."


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