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Chinese 101

The success of St. Mary's School's Mandarin Chinese class and China's rising influence along the Pacific Rim have prompted Southern Oregon University to offer Mandarin in the fall.

So far, eight SOU students are registered to take the four-credit Chinese 101 class.

"The Chinese language is becoming more popular and important," said Daniel Morris, SOU director of foreign languages.

"We have had an increasing number of high schools offering Chinese, and we've had requests from students and potential students to offer Chinese," he said.

The instructor will be Zheng Ling, a native of China who teaches at St. Mary's School, a private Catholic high school of about 425 students in Medford.

St. Mary's School was the first high school in the United States to receive a $50,000 Confucius Classroom start-up grant designed to promote the Chinese language and culture by making educational and travel opportunities available to students.

Each year the school submitsa budget for additional fundsfor teachers' salaries, programs and curriculum. This year the budget is in the six figures, though Head of School Frank Phillips declined to give an exact amount.

The program is an extension of the government-affiliated Hanban Chinese Language Council International's Confucius Institute program, now established in universities in 78 countries worldwide, including Portland State University and the University of Oregon. By the year 2020, China hopes to establish 1,000 Confucius Institutes and 1,000 Confucius Classrooms.

"The purpose of the program is to expand Chinese language and culture programs in the area," Phillips said.

In April, Phillips and Morris began discussing the possibility of offering a Chinese class at SOU.

"The Chinese Hanban organization was encouraging Frank to expand, and we thought this was a great way to do it," Morris said.

"It would give our students studying Chinese an incentive to go to SOU," Phillips said.

SOU, which also offers German, Japanese, Spanish and French, is considering becoming a Confucius Institute but has not submitted a formal application, Morris said.

"Our intent is to expand the program and add a second-year class next year," Morris said.

"We'll gauge on an annual basis the popularity of the program, and we'll go from there," he said.

The Confucius Classroom grant pays for Ling's salary and St. Mary's other two Chinese teachers. SOU has agreed to provide housing for Ling and the opportunity for her to take some classes for free in exchange for teaching the Mandarin class.

"Obviously, having an opportunity to learn Chinese opens you up to a culture that is not very much like ours," Morris said.

Phillips and Morris said they believe that the language will give students an advantage in the business market.

"Just in the economic self-interest of the student, Mandarin would be a great language to study," Phillips said.

St. Mary's School has offered Mandarin Chinese classes since 2005, but got Confucius Classroom status in 2008. This year, 32 eighth-graders, 40 sixth-graders and 70 high school students are taking various levels of Mandarin, Phillips said.

"The attrition rate for Chinese has been better than the attrition rate for Spanish," he said.

This year will be St. Mary's first year offering an advanced placement Mandarin class.

"The first crop of kids we started (teaching Mandarin) back in '05 are just starting to take AP now," Phillips said.

Nicole Martin, 16, a St. Mary's student, is beginning her fourth year of Mandarin. Martin said she is able to communicate with "varying degrees of success" with the school's Chinese exchange students. She first registered for the class in eighth grade because she had an open space in her schedule.

"I think it's a little slower learning curve," she said. "It's a little harder to learn than German."

Morris said the language is difficult for two reasons: It is not Latin-based and it is considered a "tonal language." Syllables spoken in different tones have different meanings in Chinese.

"You need a minimum of 800 characters to be moderately literate," Phillips said. "To actually pick up a Chinese version of Newsweek and read it, you need to know about 3,000 characters."

Martin hopes to find a college where she can continue studying Mandarin, and possibly spend a year studying in China. She was part of the group of St. Mary's students who visited China in July, but because the group was quarantined, "I didn't get to use it as much as I would have liked," she said.

Phillips said only one student dropped his Mandarin class as a direct result of going on the school's July trip to China, where many of the students contracted swine flu.

"I'm going to take Mandarin 1 with the ninth-graders this year," Phillips said.

Reach intern Teresa Thomas at 776-4464 or at intern1@mailtribune.com.

Zheng Ling provides a Mandarin lesson to St. Mary’s School students Wednesday. Ling also will teach a new Mandarin course at Southern Oregon University this fall. - Jamie Lusch