By Jodi Yim James, Staff Writer
Perhaps the most important relationship of this century is the United States and China. Unfortunately few Americans are fluent in the Chinese language of Mandarin. Furthermore, most Americans have limited understanding of the Chinese culture, outside of eating take-out chow mein, which is not really Chinese cuisine. Without fluency in Mandarin and without Chinese cultural understanding there is limited insight of how to work together effectively in this important 21st century friendship. It is significant to consider that Chinese students are, for the most part, required to study the English language at school in Mainland China.
The State of Minnesota, however, is a bright spot in this national picture of China and U.S. cultural understanding. The citizens of our state are fortunate to have had a number of visionary leaders among us in key positions that have blazed a trail to set our state apart in its associations with China. Throughout the 20th century, Minnesota enjoyed doing both business and cultural exchange with China. Professors and students from China have been involved in the higher education institutions of Minnesota for over a hundred years. Today, China is Minnesota’s second largest trade and export business partner.
With regard to this phenomenal environment of mutual interest and working together, it is evident that Minnesotans are actively highly interested in Mandarin education and Chinese cultural experiences. School districts in Minnesota today are commencing or expanding their Mandarin language education programs. In record numbers, Minnesota parents are enrolling their children in these same programs. Chinese language immersion schools, secondary Chinese language classes, weekend Chinese language classes, Chinese summer camps and China travel experiences are thriving in our state. Students are going to China over spring break in their high school years. College students are studying Chinese at Minnesota schools of higher education, and then studying abroad in China. The University of Minnesota has far more teachers seeking licensure for teaching Mandarin than for any other language. The story of how Minnesota decided to blaze its own unique trail for Chinese language education and jump ahead of the pack in the 21st century is extraordinary.
Although exchange between China and Minnesota has been going on for over one hundred years, Mandarin language education is relatively new in our schools. Here and there throughout Minnesota in both public and private schools, there have been Mandarin programs that were started and have been sustained over time. This has been, however, the exception and not the rule. The language programs led by Mr. Dingman Yu at South High in Minneapolis and Ms. Margaret Wong at Breck School are two examples that immediately come to mind. However, most districts have not offered Chinese language classes in the mix of the traditional French, Spanish and German language options available to mainly high school students. Immersion schools have largely been Spanish and French. Community education programs include the aforementioned customary three as well as various possibilities of mainly Nordic languages such as Norwegian or Swedish (“Uff dah, ya sure”, we are, after all, in Minnesota!).
2005 was the year that changed this picture dramatically. That was the year that Governor Tim Pawlenty led a delegation of about 200 Minnesota civic, business, academic, and government leaders on an official trip to China. Historically, this was one of the largest of Minnesota’s overseas trade delegations. Their mission was to facilitate a forum for leaders to make connections in China. In building relationships, the Minnesotans would return with Chinese contacts and ideas regarding market potential. They would establish professional and governmental partnerships, assessing trade potential. In gathering market information, they would be able to formulate savvy market entry strategies. Finally, the Minnesota leaders would promote Chinese investment in Minnesota.
Thus the Minnesota-China Partnership was announced by Governor Pawlenty in 2005. The Partnership would engage public and private organizations throughout the state to promote friendship and humanitarian causes as well as arts, culture, academics, scientific research, business investment, and commerce. This was a strategic proclamation since the economy of China ranks as one of the largest national economies in the world.
As governor, Pawlenty acknowledged the prominence of China’s vital and dynamic economy, providing opportunities for Minnesota companies seeking to increase their exports. Through the Partnership, Pawlenty was seeking to build on the already established relationship of Minnesota and China. Minnesota companies doing business internationally were encouraged to consider China’s tremendous and continuing growth.
Today China buys more Minnesota manufactured goods than any country after Canada, importing more than US$1 billion of Minnesota products every year since 2005. Top exports to China, for example, include machinery, electronics, medical instruments and plastics.
Another remarkable outcome of Governor Tim Pawlenty’s 2005 trade mission to China was the impact on Chinese or Mandarin language education in Minnesota schools. Pawlenty’s experiences in China during his initial trade mission there convinced him that Minnesota’s public school children should have more opportunities to learn to be fluent in the Chinese language. He proposed that the Minnesota Legislature provide money for the Minnesota Department of Education to study and determine what it would take to provide Chinese language education throughout the state for Minnesota school children.
Pawlenty met with the Minnesota Education Commissioner of his administration at that time, Alice Seagren. She was to organize her own delegation of academic leaders to China immediately in 2005. They were to go to China with the very specific purpose of increasing Chinese language education in our state. "If our students are going to succeed in a more globally competitive environment, it's essential that they learn a second language,” declared Commissioner Seagren. In this case, the goal was to increase opportunities for learning Chinese as a second language.
In the end, Governor Tim Pawlenty, the Minnesota Legislature, Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, the Minnesota Department of Education, and Seagren’s own 2006 delegation of visionary school administrators laid the ground work for great and lasting change for students in Minnesota. Their efforts would make Minnesota a stand-out leader in the world of Mandarin language education in the United States. Next month, we will continue with this rest of this extraordinary saga with detail from Commissioner Seagren about her mission and its impactful results in Minnesota.