Esther Kang

Manhattan Beach Unified expands Mandarin Chinese instruction

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Chinese-learning students at Manhattan Beach Middle School take turns Monday introducing visitors from Haihe High School in Tianjin, China. Photo by Esther Kang

Chinese-learning students at Manhattan Beach Middle School take turns Monday introducing visitors from Haihe High School in Tianjin, China. Photo by Esther Kang

Monday morning’s third period class for some twenty Manhattan Beach Middle School students was unlike any other.

The students, mostly eighth graders in their second year of learning Mandarin Chinese, trickled into their classroom to find about 30 sophomores from Haihe High School in Tianjin, China, uniformly clad in blue and white school tracksuits. The group was visiting the school as part of their two-week excursion to the States.

In other words, it was a rare and perfect opportunity for the MBMS students to practice the language with Chinese natives their own age.

Ni xihuan ping pong ma? (Do you like ping pong?)”

Ni jiao shenme mingzi? (What’s your name?)”

Questions as such bounced throughout the bustling classroom. Names, ages and hobbies were identified, photos snapped, high fives exchanged.

“It was really cool to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t know English very well,” said Drew Waller, an eighth grader at MBMS. “Our teacher knows English and if you don’t understand something, she could just tell you in English. But this time, you really had to think for yourself and figure out how to talk with them.”

Waller is one of some 60 eighth graders in their second year of learning Mandarin Chinese at Manhattan Beach Middle School. Now, with the implementation of Chinese 1 and 2 courses at Mira Costa High School beginning next school year, they have the opportunity to continue their study as high school freshmen.

Carolyn Seaton, Manhattan Beach Unified School District’s executive director of educational services, said introducing these new courses to Mira Costa will not only serve the needs of next year’s incoming freshmen but also widen the scope of “world languages” offered by the district.

“We want to give our kids access to what’s going help them communicate to a greater number of people, and we certainly want to give our kids every opportunity to master the language they choose,” said Carolyn Seaton, Manhattan Beach Unified School District’s executive director of educational services. “Perhaps one day if they continue their studies, it could open up job opportunities because of the emerging markets in China.”

This upcoming installment at Mira Costa streamlines a national trend: According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the number of K-12 public school students learning Chinese nearly tripled from about 20,000 in 2005, to nearly 60,000 in 2008.

“It’s becoming more prevalent, but it’s certainly still not the norm,” Seaton said. “We’re very excited about it.”

Several years ago, then-superintendent Dr. Beverly Rohrer advised Seaton to review the district’s selection of foreign language courses at the middle school and high school. MBMS offered just two foreign languages—Spanish and French—and Mira Costa, the two plus Latin.

When Seaton compared MBUSD’s offerings to those of neighboring schools—including Redondo, Palos Verdes and Torrance high schools—she made an eye-opening discovery.

“If I recall correctly, we were the only high school in our comparison group that didn’t offer a single Asian language,” Seaton said. “If we want to say we’re preparing kids for the 21st century and we’re not offering an Asian language, how can we say that?”

Carly Dossick, an MBMS eighth grader studying Chinese, converses Monday with a visiting student from Tianjin, China. Photo by Esther Kang

Carly Dossick, an MBMS eighth grader studying Chinese, converses Monday with a visiting student from Tianjin, China. Photo by Esther Kang

Seaton initially looked at Chinese and Japanese—the two Asian languages most predominantly offered in other schools. She then came across and connected with the Confucius Institute of San Diego State University, which in collaboration with the Chinese Language International Council promotes and supports Mandarin education in local schools.

The institute provided Seaton with an abundance of instructional and cultural materials, subsequently reviewed by a committee of Manhattan Beach parents and district officials.

And finally, at the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year, Manhattan Beach Middle School introduced the first and only “Confucius Classroom” in the South Bay.

Manhattan Beach Middle School offers two levels of Mandarin for seventh and eighth graders. Each yearlong course equates to one semester of first-year Chinese at the high school level, allowing an “opportunity to go more in depth on the culture,” Seaton said.

Mira Costa’s Chinese instruction will go at a faster pace—all the more reason that Seaton hopes to enlist a teacher’s assistant through the Confucius Institute, like Chinese grad student Kyle Xiao at MBMS, whose services are provided free of charge to the district.

In the next few years, Seaton anticipates the introduction of Chinese 3 and 4, and eventually, Advanced Placement (AP) Chinese.

“We’ll follow the matriculation of this group that’s coming up from MBMS.… It’ll be a few years until AP can be available, but that’s definitely the goal,” Seaton said. “We would want students to have the same opportunities in Chinese as they would in Spanish, French and Latin.”