UT researcher works to reveal nation’s vast, untapped Chinese language potential

November 16, 2009 | Research, UToday
By Jon Strunk



The next century will be defined by the relationship between the United States and China, yet most high school students’ language options remain limited to Spanish, French or German.

Higher education and select high schools have begun to offer Chinese language classes; however, the vast majority of Chinese languages are taught informally, often by parents or community members, and outside of the formal education system.

Dr. An Chung Cheng, UT associate professor of Spanish who specializes in second language acquisition and teacher education, recently received a three-year $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to conduct a comprehensive national survey of Chinese Heritage Schools to look at their teachers, resources, curriculum, technology and teaching methods, and to begin a conversation on how to best integrate the knowledge these institutions convey into formal education efforts.

“The U.S. needs to dramatically increase the number of students fluent in Chinese languages and cultures, and Chinese Heritage Schools represent a tremendous, underutilized resource,” Cheng said. “But to take advantage of the talents and language skills of these schools, we need to identify where they exist in our communities, how they work and what resources they need to ensure success.”

According to Cheng, most students at Chinese Heritage Schools are children of first- and second-generation immigrants from Chinese-speaking countries who may have little firsthand knowledge of China. These schools can help reconnect these students to their culture, Cheng said.

But as the formal educational sector works to increase its Chinese language offerings, it is often teachers from Chinese Heritage Schools who are recruited to teach in public and private school systems. Additionally, many public schools now accept credit hours for language course work completed at these schools.

“Although Chinese community schools have limited resources in funding, teacher training, appropriate instructional materials and administrative infrastructure, there are many willing members who have made tremendous efforts in promoting and maintaining Chinese language and culture in their local communities,” Cheng said. “These men and women are untapped societal resources in the U.S. as the need for Chinese language teachers grows.”

Chinese Heritage Schools do have some national organization; Cheng pointed to two nationwide organizations that work to develop these schools, one primarily connected with Taiwan and one with mainland China.

“We need a nation fluent in Chinese languages and cultures in the same way China has aggressively pursued English education among its students,” Cheng said. “If we can identify Chinese Heritage Schools, their strengths and their resource needs, we will be one giant step closer to creating a pipeline that will prepare K-12 students for the world they will be called on to navigate and lead.”

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