Chinese-language classes in Utah schools gaining popularity

Story and multimedia by Karen Holt Bennion

Watch Chinese teacher Jim Groethe work with students at Bingham High School

Listen to Shelley Huang talk about Bingham High School’s Chinese Club


It’s Monday morning and James Groethe is gathering up his teaching materials for the week. He’ll arrive at Bingham High School by 7 o’clock. However, at the end of the day he will be packing up his things in another classroom from another school.

Groethe teaches Chinese at four different high schools in the Jordan School District. “I like the exposure to various schools, students, and such, but it is exhausting,” He says. He currently must drive to Bingham High, Riverton High, Copper Hills and West Jordan High School each week.

Groethe racks up plenty of mileage on his 2002 Acura traveling from one school to another each week — approximately 110 miles for which he does not get reimbursed. He enjoys teaching Chinese and is surprised more students aren’t taking advantage of learning the language.

He learned Chinese while on a mission in Taiwan for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When he returned he studied Chinese and worked in Salt Lake City on the Chinese Client Services team for a major financial firm. After eight years with the company, Groethe decided to pursue his longtime dream of becoming an educator. Currently, he is teaching history (in addition to Chinese) at Bingham High School to fulfill a student-teaching internship through Weber State University.

Although he enjoys teaching history, he is grateful for the opportunity to be able to teach a new language to high school students and is surprised at how quickly the students are catching on.

“Learning any foreign language is beneficial to students, but I believe that Chinese is one of the best decisions a student can make. Over a lifetime, Chinese will open doorways and opportunities for these students that are incomparable to other languages,” Goethe says.

Bingham High senior Nikki Mackert agrees. She is taking Chinese II and says learning the language will help her in the future job market.

“I would love to visit China. Right now, with China almost passing up the U.S. in the market, just about any job you want, you’ll be more likely to get if you speak Chinese or have been there,” Mackert says.

She thinks learning Chinese hasn’t been as difficult as most people think. To her, it’s the same as learning to speak and spell English. Although she is happy with Groethe’s teaching technique and likes him as a teacher, she admits having a full-time teacher at her school would be more beneficial for the students. She’d appreciate being able to go to Groethe during the school day to get help instead of having to e-mail him. She also says Chinese classes and clubs are still in the growing phase and trying to make a name for themselves at Bingham.

“It seems like the Chinese classes and clubs are almost invisible in the schools, or have always had problems. I would love to see it much more emphasized,” Mackert says.

Gregg Roberts is the World Language Specialist in the Utah State Office of Education. He and others in his office are confident that Chinese will soon be as common a language to learn in our schools as more traditional languages.

“In fact, statewide we are almost there, for the 2010-11 school year, Chinese is the 3rd most taught foreign language in Utah school behind only Spanish 1st and French 2nd,” Roberts said in an e-mail message. “Hopefully, Jordan School District will be hiring several full time Chinese teachers in the near future.”

Right now, schools in the district receive state funds through the Critical Language Program and the Dual Immersion Program. Money for these programs was available in 2008, when the state legislature passed Senate Bill 41—International Initiatives. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

Roberts was hired by the Utah State Office of Education in 2006. His job was to lead the newly formed World Language Program. In a 2009 interview for the Mandarin Institute, Roberts noted how important it was for Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to bring Chinese into Utah’s schools.

“During my initial meeting with Gov. Huntsman, he looked me straight in eye and said, ‘One of the very first charges I am giving you is to get Chinese language programs into our secondary and elementary schools as soon as possible,'” Roberts said in the interview.

Since then, Roberts has been working steadily towards Huntsman’s goal. The former governor, who speaks Mandarin Chinese fluently, is now the U.S. Ambassador to China. Roberts attributes the entire Chinese language program in Utah to Huntsman and Stephenson. “Without their support, Utah would not be one of the recognized leaders in Chinese language education,” he said.

Top companies around the country also are glad to see Chinese introduced to schools. Employers often respond positively to applicants who are fluent in a second language, especially Chinese. Chad Cowan is the director of Lean Business Development for Nike Inc., which has its headquarters in Beaverton, Ore. Cowan has been on countless business trips to China and other regions of Asia such as Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Singapore. His job includes process improvement and systems alignment work. On his trips to Asia, Cowan constantly meets with business leaders who are citizens of the particular country and at times, must rely on a translator to help with meetings.

“In my experience, the ability to speak Chinese, or any other Asian language for that matter, is most beneficial when working with external business partners such as sub-contracted manufactures.” Cowan said in an e-mail interview. He is currently in the process of hiring an employee who can travel to Asia and speak Chinese. He believes that knowing Chinese is an invaluable asset on a résumé.

“In any case, it certainly couldn’t hurt and may very well be the one variable that positively distinguishes one candidate from another,” Cowan said in an e-mail message. “This boils down to a given company’s business model. For NIKE, we’ve got a lot invested in China and it’s a significant component of our source base. Having a Chinese language skills resident inside our organization is key, which we tend to leverage through bi-lingual Chinese employees,” Cowan said.

Meanwhile high school student Nikki Mackert will keep studying Chinese and will dream of the day she travels to China, for a vacation or for a business trip. Groethe will keep teaching Chinese because it’s what he loves to do. Even his mother has caught her son’s enthusiasm for the language. She is a native of Japan and still speaks broken English, Groethe says. However, she is currently taking Chinese II at a junior college near her home in California.

Groethe will continue driving to all four schools for the remainder of the 2010-2011 school year. However, he hopes to land a full-time position teaching Chinese at just one high school next year. “I plan on teaching Chinese and history until I am dead. I love it,” he says.

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