China's Hot New Export: Its Language

Asian teacher, white kids
CBS
English is the native tongue of more than 300 million people in the world.

But more than 1 billion speak Mandarin Chinese.

Chinese has become the newest export to the United States, where in the last few years the study of Chinese has gone from pretty much zero to thousands of students. It's growing fast: from Maryland, where a third of the schools now teach Chinese, to Chicago, where most classes are in urban schools, CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen reports.

"More and more people are interested in what languages our students should be learning that are going to be useful to them to get jobs later on," said Robert Davis, director of the Chicago Chinese Language program.

Even in Snohomish, Wash., they sing China's praises. It is a tough and subtle language.

"You could say 'ma,' and then you could also say 'meh,' and have it mean 'mom' or 'horse,'" one student told Petersen.

The Chinese government is all for spreading the language as a way of spreading China's influence around the world. It even supplies teachers, but there aren't enough to go around. So there's a lottery to see which American schools get teachers from China.

Many candidates are volunteers, some willing to leave their families and children for up to a year. They must be bilingual — Chinese and English.

And like Janet Yan Ping, they believe they are teaching more than a language.

"We should let China be known by the world, and we should know the world as well," she said.

A school in Marin County, north of San Francisco, won Janet's services.

Nathan is in class because his mom, Denise, learned Chinese as a child in Singapore.

"It's a very competitive world we're in," Denise Wang-Kline said.

Japanese was once the language most Americans thought their children should learn. But then Japan's economy faded, while China's economy keeps rising fast and the Chinese government believes that 100 million foreigners will soon be speaking their language ... including those in America's classrooms.

"It's a new language, and all the languages are kinda hard at first. But when you get used to it – this is my second year at Chinese – it's fun," said Chinese language student Craig Jones.