U.S. students say ‘Ni hao!’ to future success

Students at a secondary school in Missouri practice their Chinese calligraphy skills. (© AP Images)

What do Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Oscar-winning actress Mira Sorvino and President Obama’s daughter Sasha have in common? They all studied Mandarin Chinese as a second language.

They aren’t the only ones. American interest in learning Chinese has surged in recent years as ties between the two countries have deepened. By some counts, as many as 3,000 U.S. elementary and secondary schools offer instruction in Chinese.

The United States is beginning to “wake up and realize how important being multilingual will be to our future success,” said Marty Abbott, executive director of the Virginia-based American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Fastest-growing college-prep language

The College Board, a New York organization that tests secondary school students in college-preparatory subjects, reports that Chinese has become the third-most-popular language in its Advanced Placement (AP) program.

Vice President Biden and then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visited a Chinese class in California in February 2012. (© AP Images)

“We are encouraged to see the growth in the number of students taking the AP Chinese Language and Culture Exam and in the number of authorized courses available — starting out in 2006–2007 with 163 and now at 675,” said Marcia Arndt, director of world languages and cultures for the board.

In the last five years, the number of AP Chinese test takers has nearly doubled. Since the board began offering the exam in 2007, that number has soared 257 percent, from 3,261 to 11,633.

When President Xi Jinping visits the White House on September 25, he will find at least one young person eager to brush up on her Chinese. And if he were to look around the country, he would find thousands of other students also saying “Ni hao,” or hello, to the opportunity to get to know China better.