BANGOR, Maine — As more Maine students take advantage of the opportunity to learn the most widely spoken language on the planet, organizers of the 2015 Maine Chinese Conference took a close look at what an effective world language education looks like.
This year’s conference focused heavily on the state of Chinese education in Maine, from the availability of language courses in schools to the growing cultural and educational exchange programs between Maine and China. The two-day conference, hosted by the Chinese Language and Cultural Center of Maine, was held Oct. 30-31 at Husson University.
A growing number of Maine schools offer courses in Chinese language and culture, and students are taking advantage, according to Jay Ketner, world languages specialist at the Maine Department of Education.
“There’s increased enthusiasm for programs in less commonly taught languages, such as Mandarin Chinese,” Ketner told a group of about 60 educators, students and Chinese officials on the first day of the conference.
About 25 high schools across the state, including Orono, Bangor and John Bapst Memorial High School, offer Chinese language classes. They’re joined by four elementary and middle schools. In all, about 500 Maine students are enrolled in some form. A group of students taking Chinese language classes in Orono attended the conference.
That’s only a small chunk of the 237 Maine schools that offer at least one world language program, but interest is growing in the world’s most spoken language, he said.
As Maine schools push toward issuing proficiency-based diplomas, students will be required to show that they are able to “perform” adequately at least one language other than English. Chinese is becoming more crucial as China’s economy grows and collaborates more with the United States in business, trade and politics.
Yongji Xu, counselor for education at the Consulate General of China in New York, told conference attendees the education of today’s students in both the U.S. and China would play a vital role in the future relationships between the two nations.
“Our dialogue, our consultation, it has to involve people and to be implemented by people, and education is the most prominent factor of which students can change by learning the language of the other country,” Xu said.
Xu cited recent studies that found bilingual employees make, on average, $5,000 more per year than their colleagues who speak only English. He said being able to speak more than one language makes a person more marketable to employers.
“I’m glad that some of the students here are part of these changes,” Xu said, referring to the students in the room.
Jimmy Wildman, president-elect of the Connecticut Council of Language Teachers, said good language education is about immersing students in culture and giving them real-life conversational skills, not teaching them numbers and words.
“It’s about learning a new way of thinking, not about translating,” Wildman said.
Technology, he added, will play a key role in providing students, especially in rural areas, an opportunity to hear and practice new languages in a useful way.
Other conference events included forums in which teachers explained the challenges of world language education, a workshop on Chinese cuisine, calligraphy and Chinese craft demonstrations and discussions about what Americans don’t know about China moderated by school administrators who have visited the country.
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