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Students to speak a new language

| Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Chinese and Russian - two of the most commonly spoken languages in the world - will be taught in some Pittsburgh Public Schools this fall, and Upper St. Clair will offer Chinese in January.

Both districts recognize the might of China's growing economy.

"Certainly, Chinese is the No. 1 language in terms of the number of speakers," said Thekla Fall, Pittsburgh's curriculum supervisor for world languages. Chinese ranks first with more than 1 billion speakers, and Russian places fifth with about 277 million.

"It's up-and-coming, as far as trade and commerce with the United States and throughout the world," Fall said. "It's listed as one of the critical languages by the (U.S.) government."

If approved by the Pittsburgh Public Schools board, Ying Ying Shih, 32, of Shadyside, will teach Chinese at Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill. She has taught the language at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and at after-school programs at Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel and The Ellis School in Shadyside.

A native of Taiwan, Shih plans to teach about 500 of the 60,000 characters in the Mandarin alphabet and basic grammar. Her students will learn how to distinguish the four tones, which affect meaning of a word, and how to write.

"I won't say it's very, very hard," she said. "It depends on students' motivation."

Russian will be taught at Perry Traditional Academy on the North Side. For the past two years, introductory classes in Russian and Chinese were offered only to gifted middle school students.

Sterrett Classical Academy, a middle school, offered Chinese more than 20 years ago, but this might be the first time it is being offered at a high school in the district.

Upper St. Clair High School will offer an Asian studies course this fall and Chinese in the second semester.

"The reason we are doing both of these is because of China's increased role in business and in culture," said Deanna Baird, foreign language curriculum coordinator for the district.

The local school with the longest history of teaching Chinese is Shady Side Academy. This fall marks the 20th year it is offering the language.

To mark the occasion, Shady Side will host the Golden Dragon Acrobat Troupe on Oct. 6 as the first event in its Hillman Center Performing Arts Series.

Sixty of its 500 students take Chinese mostly because of its popularity in the world, said Tom Trigg, interim head of Shady Side's senior school.

"Second," he said, "there's a cachet for what in American education is an exotic language. We find at Shady Side that many students pick up Chinese as a second or third foreign language."

The state does not require students to take a foreign language. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, 795 public school pupils, including those in the South Side Area School District in Beaver County, studied Chinese last school year, and 405 studied Russian, including some in the Pine-Richland School District. Another 1,384 students took Japanese, including those in Mt. Lebanon, Pittsburgh, Shaler, South Fayette and Upper St. Clair.

Pittsburgh Public Schools is thinking of adding even more languages, including Arabic and some from India and Africa.

"We need to look at languages that are necessary in the political arena," said Deputy Superintendent Lynn Spampinato. "We're looking at critical languages for students moving into careers with international aspirations."

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