Entrepreneurs and educators work to meet high demand for elementary Chinese language instruction

Ten years ago, Ann Arborite Chris Lin set out to change the way children learn Mandarin Chinese with his Mandy and Pandy line of books and CDs for American students of Chinese heritage. While the books sold well and received praise, the business didn't scale as Lin projected and he put it on hold for a few years.


But now Lin is set to relaunch Mandy and Pandy as a technology-driven learning program that capitalizes on a newer and much broader trend towards Chinese language education.


"Demand is growing beyond heritage Chinese students to Americans in private and public schools in the area," Lin says. "Not only is Chinese the No. 1 fastest-growing language in the world, [but] we believe, because China is an economic superpower, that our kids who learn Chinese will have a competitive advantage when getting recruited from top schools and multinational companies in the future."


As demand for Chinese language education increases among elementary students nationally and locally, Lin and area educators are overcoming obstacles and helping students rethink perceptions to make sure it's available to them.


"We want to expose Americans to Chinese language and culture so that we can build understanding, cooperation, and trust [and] lay the seeds for world peace between the two largest economies in the world," Lin says.


Addressing demand in Dexter


One major challenge in bringing Chinese language education into public schools, according to Lin, is that many lack the budget for it. Lin has been working with the Detroit Chinese Learning Foundation (DCLF) to help raise funds to support Chinese language programming in Detroit-area schools. So far they have received funding from International Synergies, a project management company that promotes working relationships between China and the U.S.


But some local schools have already made major leaps into Chinese language education – and at least one of them is already familiar with Mandy and Pandy. Dexter Community Schools (DCS) piloted the books last year and gave Lin feedback on what worked and what didn't, which he plans to incorporate into newer products.


Since 2015, all elementary students at DCS study one of two languages besides English: Spanish or Mandarin Chinese.


Starting in kindergarten, every student in the same graduating class is assigned the same language through his or her entire elementary career as part of the school's World Cultures language instruction program. Classes alternate languages in two-year bands. (In seventh grade, students choose to study Spanish or French in middle and high school).


DCS superintendent Christopher Timmis says for years the district had trouble finding and keeping certified elementary language teachers.


"We were rotating through whatever staff we could get, but it really wasn't organized and continuous," he says. "So we'd have kids with French for one year and maybe Spanish for one year and maybe German."


When DCS couldn't find additional K-6 Spanish teachers to help address the continuity problem, the district turned to Mandarin, which had also ranked high on a community survey of languages to be taught.


Some of the requests came from Chinese-heritage families in the community, but Timmis says many Dexter residents also do international work with businesses and colleagues living in China, so it wasn't a surprise when Mandarin was near the top of the list.


"The most frequently spoken languages in the world are Mandarin, English, and Spanish," Timmis says. "It made sense."


Working with the district's sister schools in China, DCS was able to find a couple of teachers to come to the U.S. The district then helped those teachers get certified in Michigan, hired them, and helped them complete the visa process.


"You have to have a plan to be able to recruit and maintain and retain the teachers," Timmis says. "It's usually one or two people. If one person leaves, then you've got a problem, because there are not a lot of people certified in elementary language. They just don't exist."


Growing interest in Ann Arbor


Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) first started offering Mandarin Chinese as an option for high school students in the mid-'00s, when two teachers from China were sent to the district and funded by the Chinese government.


In 2015, AAPS world languages coordinator Marci Harris says the district expanded Chinese language instruction into Thurston and King elementary schools based on feedback gathered during a "Listen and Learn" tour led by superintendent Jeanice Swift. Swift visited each school in the district shortly after taking the role in 2014, collecting feedback on a number of topics from more than 2,000 community members.


"In the northeast part of town, many of our parents and community members requested Mandarin Chinese to be brought in over Spanish," Harris says. "So we listened to them."


The program has since grown from two teachers to five, with Mandarin also taught at nearby Clague Middle School, as well as Lawton Elementary on the west side of Ann Arbor, where parents had been asking for it for years.


While the original push came from Chinese-heritage families living in those areas, more students and parents from all backgrounds are seeing the value of learning Mandarin in an increasingly global economy.


"There's just a realistic call for all English-speaking Americans, that we all realize we need to learn other languages besides English," Harris says.


Still, Mandarin can feel like a leap for those raised on a Latin alphabet. Harris says the biggest challenge is overcoming perceptions about learning characters and intonations, which is why it helps to start students young.


Another challenge for the district has been finding authentic educational materials, which are harder to come by than those for languages that have been offered in elementary schools for a longer period of time, like Spanish or French. One solution being considered is Lin's revamped Mandy and Pandy program.


"Language learning today is so different than it was 20 years ago," Harris says. "We're looking more at proficiency, and we're all about communication — if you're able to communicate, whether speaking or writing. It's really more based on [real-life] interactions in another language, versus just knowing about it."


In addition to regular instruction at Thurston, King, and Lawton, a handful of other Ann Arbor elementary schools also offer after-school Mandarin programs once a week through AAPS' Ann Arbor Rec and Ed, including Bach, Bryant, and Burns Park elementary schools.


Youth enrichment supervisor Ivy Juan says the program has enjoyed steady interest from parents and students since starting around 10 years ago, with 50 or so students participating per term district-wide.


Juan says the program's success — and potential for further expansion — comes down to good instructors who not only know the language, but who can also relate it to American students with varying levels of competence, from those who speak Mandarin at home to those brand new to it. The program currently has one instructor, Alice Chang, who teaches weekly sessions at five different schools.


"She provides a very fun and exciting language learning experience for our kids, so they get to learn everything: listening, speaking, reading, and writing, as well as culture," Juan says.


To Juan, that cultural appreciation is one of the more rewarding parts of the job.


"Based on what we've heard from parents, this type of program really offers the children more exposure to the language and the culture," she says. "They become open-minded to other cultures – to appreciate the culture and also embrace the culture."

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.


Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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