Thursday, April 3, 2008

County expands summer Chinese language program

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This story was changed on April 3, 2008, from its print version.

With its intricate patterns and seemingly endless variety of characters, the Chinese language may seem difficult to write, read or remember to the uninitiated. But Frederick County Public Schools is out to prove you don’t have to be a genius to learn Chinese.

The school system will offer a new summer Chinese language program beginning in July. The three-week program will allow about 30 Frederick County middle-schoolers to learn Chinese vocabulary, write characters and practice basic greetings and phrases. As they learn about Chinese culture, they will also explore martial arts, the tea ceremony, calligraphy and traditional Chinese games.

The course is free and open to middle-school students of all skill levels. Previously the school system’s Chinese summer program has been restricted to gifted students only.

‘‘We are looking for a good mix of students,” Susan Helm Murphy, Frederick County schools curriculum specialist for foreign language, said. ‘‘We know that all students can learn a foreign language. This is not an elite program for elite students.”

No previous knowledge of Chinese is required. To apply, students must write an essay explaining why they want to learn Chinese, Murphy said.

‘‘We are just looking for children who really want to be there,” she said.

Murphy’s office has already started getting applications for the program and she expects the course will be filled by April 30.

The new program branched out of the Maryland State Department of Education’s Summer Center in Chinese Studies – a Frederick-based initiative providing Chinese classes for gifted students. The summer center started in 2006 at West Frederick Middle School and attracted students from Frederick, Harford, Allegheny and Washington counties.

The success of the program paid off this year, when it was awarded with a $51,709 federal Startalk grant. The grant comes from the National Foreign Language Center and is designed to support summer programs that stimulate interest in languages

Foreign language skills will be critical in the global economy of the future, said Mary Elizabeth Hart, associate director for development at the National Foreign Language Institute. ‘‘The U.S. as a whole needs to be able to communicate with other nations,” she said. ‘‘In those short programs, we encourage interest in both the language and the culture.”

The new Chinese classes will be open to students who enter sixth, seventh, and eighth grades this fall. The goal is to reach out to younger students, who are more prone to absorbing languages, said Elizabeth Chung, director of the Frederick-based Learning Institute for Enrichment and Discovery.

‘‘Language should be taught at grade three or four,” she said. ‘‘America is the only country that is so far behind with language (education).”

Chung, who teaches Chinese classes at Middletown middle and high schools, hopes the summer classes spark students’ interest in Chinese and lead them to sign up for classes during the regular school year. Currently, Frederick County offers Chinese classes at three high schools – Frederick, Middletown and Urbana. A pilot Chinese language program exists at Middletown Middle School.

With the new program, Chung said she hopes to see more students eager to study languages and learn about other cultures.

‘‘It is important for our country to meet that need,” she said. ‘‘It is critical for our security, it is critical for our economy , it is critical for our business ...”