PORTLAND, Ore. - Twenty-four young faces in the kindergarten class at Woodstock Elementary School watch intently as their teacher holds up a construction paper cut-out of a large red circle, and waits for them to identify the shape.
Piece of cake for a roomful of savvy 5-year-olds, except that teacher Shin Yen is looking for the shape's name in Mandarin Chinese. It's the world's most widely-spoken language, but one that's only just beginning to surface in U.S. classrooms, especially at the elementary level.
"Yuan", her students chant, without missing a beat.
A triangle comes next, and they call out, "San-Jiao." Then a square - "Zheng-fangxing" - and so on down the line.
The Woodstock class is on the front lines of a U.S. government-backed effort to get more students learning Mandarin, a nod to China's emergence as a global superpower of the unfolding century.
So far, the number of students nationwide who take Mandarin is minuscule - about 24,000, most of them in high school. That compares with the 3 million or so who study Spanish, the most popular language in the nation's schools, with French and German next.
But a number of urban school districts have launched Mandarin programs, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston and Boston.
High schools across the country were asked by The College Board's world language initiative whether they'd consider adding Advanced Placement courses in Italian, Russian, Japanese and Chinese - and the organization was amazed at the results, said Tom Matts, initiative director.
Fifty schools in the 2003 survey said they'd offer the Russian option, about 175 said Japanese and 240 Italian.
"And for Chinese, it was 2,400, 10 times the number of any of the other three," Matts said. "We had no idea there was such an incredible interest out there. Of all the new AP courses, certainly Chinese shows the most promise for growth."
In the U.S. Senate, the Foreign Relations Committee is considering a proposal to allocate $1.3 billion to boost Chinese language and culture classes in public school, and China, too, is doing its part, said Michael Levine, education director at The Asia Society in New York City. China's education ministry has formed partnerships with states including Kentucky and Kansas, as well as the countries of Brazil, Australia and the United Kingdom, to boost teacher exchanges and training.
The Oregon program, though, is the first in the country to track students from kindergarten to college. The school district and the University of Oregon won a $700,000 grant from the Defense Department for the program this fall.
The idea is for students to move from the Portland school system to the university, where scholarships will be offered to students who will take a standard college curriculum taught largely in Chinese. Students can also opt to spend their junior year abroad, studying at Nanjing University in China.
The goal, organizers say, is for the program to be a model that other schools and universities can duplicate, and for students to emerge ready for the workforce, with a native fluency in Chinese.
Eight years ago, when the Woodstock program began, the majority of students were of Asian descent, Woodstock principal Mary Patterson said, many of them adopted daughters whose parents wanted them to feel some kind of connection to their native country. Now the program is increasingly mixed ethnically, she said; for the first time this year, the program had a waiting list, and interested parents had to be turned away.
It's long been accepted that the younger a child is, the easier it is to introduce them to a second language, said Patterson.
In September, most of Yen's 24 students couldn't speak a single word of Mandarin, one of the most difficult languages to learn. But three months later, the students were singing songs in Mandarin, laboriously printing Chinese characters and following Yen's instructions, delivered in Mandarin, with no need for any English translation, jumping up to impersonate trees, mountains and frogs at her command.
Teaching begins slowly, Yen said, with repetition of about 20 to 25 Chinese characters, since Mandarin has no alphabet, just 3,500 base characters that are then combined to form other words. Each year, students learn about 150 characters, she said, via constant repetition and memorization.
By the time they get to fourth grade, students are relatively fluent; Lily Rappaport, 9, said she sometimes dreams in Mandarin, after five years in the program. Being in the program has its disadvantages, she said; her parents can't be much help with her homework, for one.
"I am the only one in my family who really speaks it," she said. "I have to figure it out by myself."
In the higher grade levels, students at Woodstock take not just language-learning classes but also math and science courses that are taught in Mandarin.
In Jessica Bucknam's fourth-grade math class, students answer her questions on graphing and remainders in easy, practiced Chinese. She mixes in some language learning with the math as well, asking students whether a wrong answer needs a smiley face or a frown next to it and waiting for their answer in Chinese.
Yen and Bucknam are both native Mandarin speakers, but finding teachers for the program is among the greatest challenges, Patterson said.
Where to find the teachers to meet the increasing demand for Chinese classes is the "$64,000 question," said Levine, of the Asia Society.
Education officials should try for more teacher exchanges with China, he said, and consider alternative certification programs for some of the many Chinese speakers who live in the United States but are not licensed as teachers. Distance learning could also help bring Chinese language courses to students in more rural school districts, he said, and teacher preparation programs at universities could also ramp up efforts to train language educators.
"There are great big multiples of kids who are studying the European languages, but when we think about our economy, and the new markets we are expanding into, it is time to recalibrate some of our attention," Levine said.