Smart phone apps boost "Chinese Fever" in America



When Charles Laughlin was in college in the U.S. state of Minnesota about 30 years ago, Chinese was categorized along with Arabic, Swahili and Icelandic as a Less Commonly Taught Language" in the United States.

Now, the world's oldest written language is the second most commonly spoken non-English language, only after Spanish, in the United States, with over 2.1 million speakers, according to a latest survey by 24/7 Wall Str., a widely-quoted Delaware company.

Chinese fever goes down to primary & secondary education

"The most significant new aspect of this Chinese Fever, was that it went down to the level of primary and secondary education," said Laughlin, East Asian Studies and Department Chair, University of Virginia, in a recent interview via phone with Xinhua.

"For the first time across the nation, you saw Chinese instruction in elementary schools, middle schools and high schools... I think, it continues to grow," said Laughlin, who specializes in Modern Chinese Literature.

Laughlin's latest Chinese article, titled "Jazz, education and American Culture" and under his Chinese name, Luo Fulin, is carried by the 4th edition of 2017 Hua Cheng, or Flower City, one of the famous bi-monthly literary magazine in China.

Current figures reveal that over 200,000 students are actively studying Mandarin in the U.S. presently, with more expected to follow. The U.S.-China Strong Foundation said it aims to expand to 1 million the number of U.S. K-12 students learning Mandarin by 2020.

At the university level, Laughlin observed there was a large increase in numbers of U.S. students learning Chinese, but it has pulled back in the past four or five years.

"(It is) not because of a change of attitude, but I think maybe because some of the students were initially interested in taking Chinese... they might have overestimated their abilities to learn Chinese," he said.

"It is important to remember the increase at the university level is still much higher than it was 20 years ago, in another words, now Chinese, at most universities, is No. 3, sometimes No. 2 the most widely taken foreign language, after Spanish and French," Laughlin said. "This has never happened before, it was not the case when I was in the college."

However, Chinese language studies in the U.S. did not suddenly begin 10 or 20 years ago and there have been professors of Chinese in American universities since the late 19th century, Laughlin said.

Learning Chinese in the U.S. took off around 1950s and 1960s and the language turned increasingly hot when China started its reform and opening-up policy in late 1970s.

"Around the end of 20th century, China's achievements are so incredible, and its global influence developed very fast... (these) raised the profile of Chinese language very high," he said.

Chinese-learning apps complement traditional classroom teaching

Mary Hoffman, a teacher from Brooklyn, New York City, once felt learning Chinese was so hard because she did not have native speakers to practise the tone language.

"I studied Spanish because I used to work in a Spanish neighborhood, and I carry on a basic conversation with the parents now about their job, and I'm sure it's gonna take longer in Chinese, just because of the tones...So that's the challenge for Americans," Hoffman told Xinhua recently at the end of her first Chinese class at the China Institute in Lower Manhattan, New York City.

"(It was even harder) if you didn't have the ability to hear it many many many times when you went home, it's not like you can study it from a book in the same way that you could with Spanish, which is more phonetic, or any other language," she said.

"(Now) with the assistance of computer it would be a bit easier," said Hoffman.

She was referring to online resources including smart phone apps for Chinese learning that have sprung up over the years. A quick Google of "Chinese learning app" yields over 31,700,000 results.

"Smartphone's apps have been a really helpful tool because they allow me to study Chinese while I'm on the subway or in a coffee shop," wrote Sborto Zhou, an editor who has studied Chinese for over five years, in his article "The 12 best apps to learn Chinese on your smartphone or tablet."

In his opinion, the best apps for learning Chinese are Skritter (Learn how to write Chinese characters), FluentU (improve your language level through immersion in the language) and The Chairman's Bao (an online newspaper that has been simplified for people learning Mandarin), to name just a few.

Wechat, a sort of Whatsapp that is extremely popular in China, is also considered one of the best platforms for Chinese learners to interact with native Chinese speakers as it allows one to meet new people.

"All these simple and accessible resources have revolutionized traditional Chinese teaching," said Chen Jinguo, an instructor who has been teaching at the China Institute for more than 20 years. "By embedding them within curricula, my classes are more interesting, interactive and engaging with local students."