China has had astonishing and sustainable economic growth the last two decades. The economic development has had a profound impact on the status of the Chinese language in the world. One significant dimension is the increasing number of people learning Mandarin (the official language of China) within (by Chinese minorities) and outside China. Mandarin learning has been experiencing dramatic growth since 2007 (Weise, 2013). Mandarin, as one of the “critical” languages, has been being adapted by school districts as a subject of the world language curriculum. In the midst of this intense wave of Chinese learning, in 2010, five parents in Verona, Wisconsin, established a Chinese immersion school, VAIS (Verona Area International School). It is a charter school in the Verona Area School District (VASD) that offers two-way bilingual instruction for k-5, half day in Chinese and half day English. According to the VASD website, “All charter schools in the district are required to follow the same standards for what students must learn. The charter schools are allowed, by contract, to have different strategies and instructional methods to reach these standards” (VASD, 2015). The curriculum focuses on global community. K-2 students not only learn Chinese language and culture, but also learn math and science in Mandarin, while in grades 3-5, Mandarin is used for social studies and other humanities subjects. The school is open to VASD residents and also has 10% open enrollment to those living outside the district. The students in VAIS are quite demographically and linguistically diverse. The majority are white native English speakers, and there are some Spanish heritage speakers, a few Chinese heritage speakers and African American students. It is located inside two public school buildings, Stoner Prairie Elementary School (K-2) and Savanna Oaks Middle School (grades 3-5). In November 2015, VAIS was designated a Confucius Classroom by Hanban Institute Headquarters in Beijing, China. It is the only Mandarin immersion school in Wisconsin.
No Child Left Behind Policy and the VAIS Curriculum
Under the NCLB policy and the standardized testing system, it might be questioned that children can learn a new language and at the same time keep up with the learning of English to meet the standard requirements. During an interview, Barbara Drake, the director of VAIS, said that there is no conflict between standardized testing and learning a new language. VAIS begins to test the students in second grade, while other schools usually wait to test students until third grade. Drake also emphasized that students’ capability to learn a language is amazing. For more detailed information about the testing system in VAIS, please watch the attached video of the interview with Drake.
The five parents who founded VAIS are middle class Verona area residents. Their idea was and is two-fold: (1) to provide children a global viewpoint, and learning another language and culture is an optimal way to achieve it, and (2) mastering Chinese and English will increase job opportunities for their children’s future. In informal conversations with some parents, they expressed the same opinions about the school choice. Some also added other reasons such as the relatively smaller classroom size and learning another language can enhance their children’s overall intellectual and social development. For the Chinese parents, the primary reason for choosing VAIS was to maintain the heritage language for the next generations.
Foreign language learning in the U.S. in the 21st century
No matter the reasons parents and children chose VAIS, the parents acknowledge the advantage of learning two languages at the same time. In the history of education in the U.S., the dominant attitude toward bilingualism and bilingual education has been hostile, as seen in the restrictions on and banning of bilingual education and in English-only policies, which have brought negative consequences to the entire society (Garcia, 2009). As Garcia says, “Our bilingual capacity as a nation is extremely poor” (Garcia, 2009, p.191). Due to this poor language capacity, Garcia points out, the need for foreign language ability in the U.S. became evident in the aftermath of 9/11, and the government realized the imperative for expanding citizens’ foreign language abilities. As a result, more foreign language funding was added to the education budget. In 2006, the “National Security Language Initiative aimed to have more Americans master ‘critical Need Languages’ staring at an earlier age” (Garcia, 2009). In October 2015, President Obama announced a new initiative aimed at having 1 million American schoolchildren learn Mandarin Chinese over the next five years. It is not clear if this initiative qualifies as language policy. Whether it does or not, however, it has the feel of language policy since the federal government is throwing at least its verbal weight behind the idea. From the micro level—schools like VAIS—to the macro level—language policies— as well as from the perspective of language as social capital or a component of identity, the significance of foreign language learning has increased substantially and can be expected to continue to do so.