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China Syndrome


When Colorado was still part of the untamed West, it was home to a mellifluous babble of foreign tongues, the native languages of myriad migrants who worked its soil, built its railroads and hunted in its canyons. French, Russian, Spanish and German were just as likely to be heard as English in those days, as was a more exotic language—Chinese.

Chinese migrants laid tracks for railroads over the mountains and worked in the mines of Leadville, Black Hawk and Cripple Creek. By the 1880s, Denver had the highest concentration of Chinese in the Plains states, numbering several hundred people, who created a thriving Chinatown located on Wazee Street near where Coors Field is today. But Chinatown was burned by a racist mob and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended Chinese immigration, dwindled their ranks. For most of the past century, the Chinese language had once again became a rarity.

Now it’s making a resurgence in a most unlikely place—the middle and high schools of Erie, the epicenter of a thriving Mandarin Chinese language program in Colorado public schools. More than 1,600 students are learning the language in this small East Boulder County town, by far the highest concentration of Chinese students in the state. The elective program has grown so large so fast—it’s only four years old—that the Chinese Hanban (China’s equivalent of the Department of Education) is considering opening an official Chinese cultural hub in Erie High School. Called Confucious Institutes, these facilities promote Chinese language and culture throughout the United States.

It makes sense, said Steve Payne, Erie High School principal, because Chinese is the second most widely spoken language. The growth in China’s economy, combined with advances in technology, make fluency imperative for those interested in international business.

“About three and a half years ago, as we were getting larger, we needed to look at adding another foreign language,” Payne said. “At the time, we had a very small German (program) and very large Spanish. We did a lot of research and discovered that the No. 2 language spoken in the world is Chinese. …A major piece in this whole decision is China’s economy. It made sense to do it.”

Payne hired Ya-Wen Chang, a Taiwanese doctoral student at CU-Denver to develop the program and write the curriculum. In just four short years, it’s grown to the extent that they hired four college teachers from China, whom they interviewed over Skype and flew to Colorado on temporary work visas. The program is so large, they’ve also needed to hire a Chinese coordinator.

Chang says filling classes for a language that’s rarely heard outside the classroom hasn’t been a challenge. With the globalization of business, China’s astounding economic growth rate of 10 percent over the past 30 years and the ease with which anyone can experience different cultures through YouTube and social media, parents have quickly gotten the message that having their kids learn Mandarin, even in a state where Asians comprise barely 3 percent of the population, is a good idea.

“All of our parents are very supportive,” Chang said.

If kids are dissuaded by learning a vocabulary that consists of complex characters rather than letters, it’s not apparent. Chang recently quizzed her classes, asking for reasons why students take it. Among the responses were that the course is fun, that it’s likely to be useful in the future, that it makes them feel proud to learn an uncommon (for Colorado, at least) language and that they enjoy making international friends.

“The big piece for me is building the relationship with kids,” Chang said. “When you build those relationships, they just want to follow you and learn from you. I learn from them as well, and that’s a beautiful piece for me.”

The Confucius Institute in Denver fills some of the cultural gap, hosting artists and performers from China that give Chang’s students a glimpse of the Orient. When a troupe of singers from East China Normal University in Shanghai visited Colorado, a group of Chang’s students sang for them in Chinese.

“At that moment, you feel the connection between the two groups and that was beautiful,” she said.

The Chinese program is expected to do nothing but grow, according to both Payne and Chang. Currently, Erie elementary school kids are given exposure to the language through songs and simple phrases on a non-testing basis; the middle and high school classes are elective. Payne says St. Vrain Valley School District administrators are interested in offering the language at more schools throughout the district.

“St. Vrain already has more Chinese students than any other feeder system in Colorado,” Payne said. “And more schools are starting to pick up on what we’re doing. …

“I guess our ultimate goal,” he continued, “is to get students started in kindergarten so that by the time they graduate from Erie High School, they are fluent in Chinese, know and understand the Chinese culture and are ready to walk into college and blow the socks off of wherever they go.”

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