'Equip the children with language skills that will give them an edge'

'Equip the children with language skills that will give them an edge'

EUGENE, Ore. -- In China, party hosts still have about two weeks to prepare for New Year celebrations, but students 9,000 miles across the globe in Eugene are already celebrating by singing a traditional New Year song in Mandarin.

Oak Hill School in Eugene offers Mandarin immersion courses beginning in Kindergarten and ending in 8th grade.

By the fifth grade, students like 10-year-old Maya Ordway can understand the building blocks of writing and speaking that will eventually allow them to become fluent.

“I think [the program] is going really well,” said Ordway. “Mandarin is so much different from English and so it’s just really fun.”

Ordway said she was adopted from China and that her  mother suggested she study Mandarin, but that’s not why Ordway likes it.

“It gives me a connection to China,” said Ordway. “But it’s really challenging. It’s really hard to memorize all the characters, but once you memorize it it’s really easy.”

About 20 children study Mandarin at Oak Hill School. Headmaster Elliot Grey said it’s the only school in Oregon outside of Portland and Medford that teaches the language.

“The world is turning more and more towards Asia,” said Grey. “That’s the way of the future. As markets compete and as China increasingly becomes a world power, we like to equip the children with language skills that will give them an edge.”

According to a survey done by the Center for Applied Linguistics, among the country’s 27,500 middle and high schools offering language courses, the proportion offering Chinese or Mandarin rose from one percent to four percent between 1997 and 2008.

According to a government survey, 1,600 American public and private schools are teaching Chinese and Mandarin is up 300 schools from about a decade ago.

“There’s a global trend more and more for education to include Mandarin,” said Grey. “In this area [our region] seems resistant to that.”

China’s estimated $6 trillion economy makes it the second strongest in the world.

Although China has grabbed headlines in the U.S. for political turmoil and alleged human rights violations, Grey said the classes focus on creating a ‘human to human’ connection and to inspire ‘global education’ rather than dwell on political rhetoric.

Grey did say that as children advance in the immersion program they do learn about the history and culture of China.

Oak Hill School plans to expand the immersion program to the high school level.