By Jodi Yim James, Staff Writer
“Really, when it comes to teaching Chinese, Minnesota is seen as a leader,” said John Melick, who was the director of Chinese language initiatives for the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) in 2008. This was only two years after MDE Commissioner, Alice Seagren, led an education delegation to China in 2006. What began as a question asked by Governor Tim Pawlenty during his trade delegation trip to China in 2005 – If Chinese students are learning English, why are our students not learning Chinese? – had become, under his leadership, an initiative for Mandarin language education in Minnesota.
When Pawlenty returned to Minnesota from China in 2005, he met with then Commissioner Alice Seagren and asked her to organize her own delegation from MDE to China. After her trip in 2006, the Minnesota Mandarin Initiative was instituted in 2007. From the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, dated July 2007, we read:
Mandarin Chinese: This past legislative session, Governor Tim Pawlenty proposed and the Minnesota Legislature passed an initiative for developing a statewide articulated Mandarin Chinese curriculum. The initiative will ensure that our students are prepared to enter a competitive global economy. MDE brought together a network of higher education representatives, educators, individuals who speak and write fluent Mandarin Chinese, businesses, MDE staff and other interested partners to accomplish the goals set forth by the Governor Pawlenty and the Legislature.
The findings are online at:
The Mandarin Chinese curriculum put together by the State through a number of committees facilitated Mandarin language education throughout the State. Districts would not be alone and starting from scratch. Immediately, Mandarin language education increased throughout Minnesota, as did the programs for teaching and licensing Mandarin language teachers. Dr. Martha Bigelow, in the February 2012 issue of China Insight, said that the teacher licensure program for Mandarin at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities had mushroomed at that time.
From the Minnesota House of Representatives Web site in 2007, Representative Erik Paulsen wrote:
“Grow with China or be Left Out”
Creating a big and bold vision for Minnesota and its relationship with China means success for Minnesota and our citizens in the 21st century global economy. If we do it right, Minnesota is poised for opportunity and growth. If we don’t do anything at all, we risk being left behind.
With foresight and the right effort, I believe that Minnesota is positioned to have the strongest and most active relationship with China of any state in the nation.
The question of how we get there is answered in a five point plan: teach Mandarin Chinese in every high school, host annual trade missions, enhance Chinese investment in Minnesota, increase gross domestic product exports to China, and create mutual economic activity that outpaces other states.
Chinese is the most widely spoken language on the planet. There are 874 million native speakers of Chinese as compared to 341 million of English. While China mandates English instruction beginning in third grade, only 50,000 American school children study Chinese. The Minnesota Legislature took the first step this session when it approved $250,000 to develop a statewide articulated Mandarin Chinese curriculum in our schools. The state should enhance this program so that it is offered at every high school in the state and incorporated into elementary education as well.
When China Insight interviewed Commissioner Seagren recently, she pointed out that the Committees that put together a Mandarin Curriculum for MDE were comprised of not only educators, but also Minnesotan Mandarin speakers who had immigrated from China and Taiwan. These private citizens stepped up to the plate and supported this initiative, volunteering their time and expertise for the MDE and Minnesota’s student population.
Then in 2008, Melick reported, “The biggest change is the number of new programs and new students studying Chinese from last year to this year.” He was speaking about 2007 to 2008. Since then and now in 2012, Minnesota has continued its phenomenal leadership in this area.