“Hablando Chino in Puerto Rico”
CARIBBEAN BUSINESS, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014, Pg. 16
The following is a companion story to the issue’s Front-Page article on the teaching of English in Puerto Rico.
While Chicago’s public schools have been preparing students for the future by teaching Mandarin Chinese for nearly a decade already, and Puerto Rico’s public school system continues its ambivalence regarding the importance of fluency in English (let alone other languages), a few of the island’s private schools and universities have seen the future and are now offering Mandarin Chinese classes.
Universidad del Este (UNE), which is part of the Ana G. Méndez University System, began teaching Mandarin Chinese—in addition to French, Portuguese, Italian, Arabic and Greek—under a collaborative agreement with the Beijing Language & Cultural University. The initiative is part of the curriculum at UNE’s Multilingual Learning Center, which was launched in 2009 under Title V federal education funding.
“Mandarin is one of the languages that we have had the most success in teaching, thanks to an agreement struck in 2012 with the Beijing Language & Cultural University,” explained English professor Sandra Mirabal Nieves, who heads UNE’s Multilingual Learning Center. “Under the Fulbright Scholar in Residence program, we were able to bring Dr. Wu Ping, who heads the Beijing Language & Cultural University’s International Program.”
In the Spring 2012 semester that Dr. Wu Ping spent at UNE, he presented three fully accredited courses in Mandarin and two seminars (24 to 30 hours) that were attended by students and professionals. In fact, such was the success of the initial UNE Mandarin program that it was attended by UNE’s students, faculty and advisory board members, as well as by members of the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association.
Mandarin continues to be an important part of the UNE language program, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Wu Ping, who has brought graduate students from the Beijing University to the UNE campus as part of the ongoing cultural exchange.
“Our courses put much emphasis on understanding the cultural aspects of the society where that language is spoken,” Mirabal explained. “That means understanding norms, festivals and customs. This way we can understand and respect other cultures.”
Mirabal stressed that the business community places a high value on learning Mandarin. “We received many calls from business owners, and during two semesters, we had employees who work for Stryker in Santa Isabel [the company has plants in China] and executives who work for Banco Santander attending the seminars,” she added. “More than just bilingualism, we are seeing a trend toward multilingual professionals.”
Mirabal added: “Our institution is proposing the internationalization of students as one of its priorities. Our ultimate objective is for our students—at all levels and in all fields—to transcend an insular perspective. We are achieving that through cultural exchanges and experiences abroad—a very important component to learning languages. Speaking several languages— being multilingual—is a tremendous added value for our graduates when it comes to their placement and success as professionals.” As part of his cultural exchange, Dr. Ping also gave lectures at several of Puerto Rico’s private schools that also teach Mandarin as part of a multilingual curriculum.
Robinson School, the oldest English-language school in Puerto Rico, began offering Mandarin in its high school in September 2013, according to Head of School Dan Hildebrand. “As the first school in Puerto Rico to be accepted for International Baccalaureate World School candidacy, and the only English-language school with a boarding program for foreign students, we promote a world view,” Hildebrand explained. “At the same time, with China’s emergence as a major economic player in the future, and with Chinese students in our boarding program, we wanted to offer our students the advantage of learning Mandarin Chinese while they are here.”
Since last year, about 45 students at Robinson have enrolled in teacher Yifang Chen’s Mandarin Chinese class as well as a group of younger students who study the language in afterschool classes. “Our students love a challenge,” Chen said, “and since Mandarin is nothing like English, Spanish or French, rising to that challenge is one of the reasons they like to take a difficult course such as Mandarin. Some of the other reasons they have expressed include an appreciation of other cultures—especially China’s—as well as seeing more career opportunities for themselves if they can speak the language in the future.”
As China has boomed, so has the teaching of Mandarin across the mainland U.S. In the past decade, the Chicago Public Schools has expanded instruction in Chinese to include at least 43 schools and 12,000 students, according to a 2012 Forbes magazine article. “Many of these students are Hispanic and will be trilingual,” Forbes said. Public schools in Arlington, Va., also offer after school instruction in Chinese and Arabic to middle and high school students.