Nate Morrison wants to be an engineer.
The Jefferson High School sophomore already is enrolled in STEM classes and is considering Purdue University for his postsecondary education. But Morrison knows he needs more than an scientific background to be successful, so he’s learning Mandarin Chinese.
Morrison is one of more than 200 Lafayette School Corp. students immersed in the language. The district started offering courses in 2007.
John Layton, associate superintendent, said the federal government lists Mandarin as a critical language for people to learn in terms of national security.
“Those students who gain command of the language may have doors open for them in the business world, in government or whatnot,” he said.
With the Nanshan America Advanced Aluminum Technologies plant open on Lafayette’s south side, more Chinese-owned industries could choose to come to Tippecanoe County, Layton said, presenting even more opportunities for students in Indiana.
To unlock those doors, LSC allows its students to start young. The corporation offers a Mandarin Chinese language exploratory class to high-ability students at Edgelea Elementary School. When students enter Sunnyside Intermediate, the curriculum intensifies to prepare students for Mandarin fluency courses, through which they can earn high school credit beginning in seventh grade at Tecumseh Junior High.
At Jefferson, levels I through IV are offered for students who either want to start their Mandarin education or continue their studies. Under the leadership of Wei Hong, a foreign language professor at Purdue, the university is home to the Confucius Institute. In 2010, LSC became designated as a Confucius Classroom district, or the K-12 equivalent.
“Together we have worked to provide Chinese cultural experiences for our students, even those who are not learning the Chinese language,” Layton said. “It has made a lot of sense for us to offer Mandarin on many levels, and we are very proud of it.”
Sophomore Abbey Armstrong said she wants to go into the medical field after college. The 15-year-old has been learning Chinese since she was in second grade and is now in the level III class at Jefferson. Armstrong said she wanted to stick with learning the language because Mandarin could help her pursue a career in another country.
“It will help me if I need to help others who don’t speak fluent English,” she said.
Chinese can help students in a variety of ways, said Ye Sun, Mandarin teacher at Jefferson. The complicated language allows them to have a better understanding of other cultures, she said. Students become more accepting of Chinese people and tend to ask more questions about the culture, she said.
“They go over to West Lafayette and Purdue, and they see Chinese students, but they understand that that doesn’t represent all Chinese people,” she said. “We have our rich, our poor, our bad guys, just like the United States.”
With nearly 4,000 Chinese students studying at Purdue, it is beneficial for students to learn Chinese, Layton said. Morrison said he wants to use what he learned in his classes to make friends with international students on campus and allow him to stand out from other students in his classes.
Hong, the Purdue professor, said she has students from a variety of colleges and majors enroll in her classes, including engineering, management and hospitality. Having Chinese on their resume when they apply for jobs makes them stand out, she said.
“Whether it’s a language class, culture class or a study abroad trip, it makes employers stop and recognize their commitment to the language,” Hong said.
The chance to start as early as elementary school has more of Hong’s students starting at higher levels when they go to college. Students can take a placement test and skip over Chinese I at the college level, she said.
“That’s the nice thing about the program,” Hong said. “I can see the time and effort LSC has put into it to make it successful.”