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School boosts language learning
When speaking Mandarin Chinese, it's not what you say, but how you say it.

Needwood Middle School sixth-grader Taiya Durham has had to learn that five different tones can make the same word mean five different things.

Still, Taiya is picking up the language quickly.

"It was pretty hard at first, but if you listen to what our teacher is saying, it gets easier," Taiya said Thursday as she and 27 classmates studied the language in the school's media center.

Taiya is happy to get her education in Chinese language started because it is a unique class in Glynn County offered as part of the International Baccalaureate program. Students can continue their Chinese studies in high school through Georgia Virtual School.

Needwood is not alone in its offering of the language. More Chinese language classes than ever are being taught today in the U.S., according to Marty Abbott, spokeswoman for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

In the 2004-2005 school year, there were 20,292 Chinese language classes taught in the U.S., Abbott said.

As of the 2007-2008 school year, the most recent data available, there were 59,860 programs nationally, a 195 percent increase, she added.

"Americans have always been interested in the languages that make us more competitive," Abbott said.

In the 1980s, Japanese language classes were growing as China's economy was booming.

Today, Chinese language classes are expanding quickly as the country's economy grows and becomes more involved with international business, Abbott said.

Needwood Principal Jim Pulos wants all of his students to be exposed to a foreign language during their time there.

Chinese was a natural fit since both Glynn County and the city of Brunswick have developed relationships with sister cities in China.

It also helped that Pulos had Jan Cutforth on his staff.

Cutforth's mother is Chinese, and she spent many summers during her childhood visiting Taiwan. She is now the only certified Chinese language teacher in Glynn County.

"Right now, China is becoming a huge economic power," Cutforth said. "As we trade more and more with them, the language will become more important."

While learning the language is the purpose of the class, Cutforth, who earned her college degree in political science and constitutional law at the University of California Los Angeles, also teachers her students about the culture.

Her eighth-grade students will get a chance next semester to participate in a live Skype chat with students in China.

"We want them to actually see that there is a world beyond Brunswick," Cutforth said.

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