Chinese the new 'in' language
Monday, May 29, 2006
Special to The Times

Student enrollment in Chinese language programs at colleges across New Jersey is growing at a faster clip than China's booming economy.

At Princeton University, for example, enrollment in Chinese language courses in the past six years has almost doubled, from 226 to 407 students.

"Enrollment is at the highest level it's ever been," said professor David Howell, chairman of the East Asian Studies department. "It has not yet peaked, either."

Chinese is now Princeton's third-most popular foreign language, after Spanish and French, which drew, respectively, 722 and 399 students in the fall term.

Other New Jersey universities have experienced a similar trend.

In the past year, enrollment in Chinese language programs at Rutgers has increased by 50 percent, from 100 to 150 students. And the introductory Chinese class at The College of New Jersey more than doubled in size last year, adding 10 students to the six that had enrolled in the 2003-04 academic year. In the fall, Rider University will offer Chinese language study for the first time.

Gov. Jon Corzine has initiated reforms in education policy to increase access to Chinese language education and to develop Chinese fluency among English speakers.

"Eighteen New Jersey schools offer Chinese, but that's not enough," Corzine said in a speech in September 2005. "We need to do better at teaching the high-demand languages that are increasingly important in the new world, like Chinese and Arabic."

Corzine added that by 2009, the state of New Jersey should aim to triple the number of schools offering Chinese language courses.

In response to Corzine, Rutgers has developed an accelerated Chinese language teacher certification program that it hopes will satisfy the rising demand for qualified language instructors.

Congress has seen similar initiatives. Last May, a bill was introduced to spend .3 billion on Chinese language instruction in American schools.

Even without legislation in place, more and more Princeton University students are electing to learn Chinese.

When enrollment in introductory Chinese skyrocketed last fall from 354 to 407 students, Princeton had to hire an additional teacher to manage the work load. Next fall, they will be adding another new instructor to their staff.

Though Princeton's East Asian Studies program has always been highly respected and generously funded by the administration, until recently it was considered unconventional and unusual to learn Chinese.

"Fifty years ago, there were virtually no China experts able to speak Chinese. It was treated as a dead language," said Link. "Even four or five years ago, I would hear Chinese referred to as an exotic language. Now, no one would call it that."

More Princeton students are electing to major in East Asian Studies than ever before. This year, 15 students majored in the department, up from seven in 2004.

Princeton professors attribute the growing popularity of Chinese to China's tremendous economic growth.

"Many students come to the program because they see business opportunities," said professor Perry Link of Princeton University's East Asian Studies department. "The factor that's made the difference is the booming economy in China."

Potential economic gain drew Princeton freshman Chris Pozzi, a first year Chinese language student, to the course.

"Chinese is the most useful language besides English," he said. "China has the most people in the world right now. It is the next super power."

Observing the increase in business partnerships between the United States and East Asia, Pozzi and his classmates hope their language proficiency will give them an edge when competing for jobs.

In years past, Princeton graduates fluent in Chinese have used their language skills in a range of professions, including journalism, law, medicine, politics and finance.

But financial success is not the only factor motivating Chinese language study.

Howell noted that many undergraduates are attracted to Princeton's language program by an interest in China's civilization and culture. Other students are Chinese-Americans hoping to become fluent in the language of their ancestors.

Princeton professors highlighted the impact of the news media in influencing the popularity of studying the East Asian language.

"A certain percentage of students who take Chinese are doing so because it's in the news right now," Howell said. "If the headlines were to change, maybe they would not be here."

Link noted that enrollments declined drastically after the Tiananmen Square massacre in China in 1989. It took until the mid-1990s for students to regain interest in learning Chinese.

Link and Howell do not anticipate the renewed popularity waning any time soon. "The only thing that would slow down the increase in enrollments would be some huge political crisis, but I don't see that happening right away," Howell said.

"It is definitely not a fad at Princeton or outside the university," Link said. "It is going to stay."

A solid understanding of East Asian culture is nearly impossible without language fluency, the Princeton professors noted. "Unless you can function minimally in Chinese, you can't get a feeling for what it's like for people in China," Howell said.

"Language study is the gateway to true understanding of East Asia," added Link.

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