Last month, about 137 Utah educators spent a week in China on the Chinese government's dime, er, renminbi.
Educators spent six days in Beijing and other provinces as part of the Chinese Bridge Delegation, a program sponsored by the People's Republic of China in partnership with the American not-for-profit College Board. The program aims to strengthen Chinese language programs in the U.S.
All together, more than 400 American educators participated in the program, which was funded by Hanban, China's official agency to promote the Mandarin language and Chinese culture. Participants paid a $450 registration fee while Hanban covered airfare, hotels and food.
The program was aimed at educators already involved in Chinese language programs. Delegates represented Provo City, Granite, Alpine, Canyons, Jordan, Salt Lake City and Davis School Districts. Several Utah participants said the trip was a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," noting educators' salaries don't typically allow them to take exotic vacations to places like China. They visited such iconic cultural sites as Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City and the Bird's Nest Olympic venue.
Provo City School Board President Sue Curtis went on the trip in hopes of enhancing Provo's Chinese programs, including Wastach Elementary's Chinese dual-language immersion program. Some 75 Wasatch Elementary students are currently splitting their school days down the middle, learning half of the time in English, the other half in Chinese.
"We, as Americans, need to realize most people in the world know other languages," Curtis said. "Americans are not as good at that because they think they can get by with English. People who know other languages are going to be the ones that make things happen."
Chinese should be available to Utah students, she said.
"I really feel strongly that this is the language of the future for our kids to need to know," Curtis said.
Provo School District's English as a Second Language Director Julene Kendell took part in the delegation two years ago.
"It was amazing just to really experience first-hand the culture," she said. "When you get to know the people and talk to them, you realize you are more alike than different."
Delegates spent their days touring schools, attending workshops and sight-seeing.
"I think it's a really good way for our countries to develop a better relationship and get to know each other better," said Cheryl Hansen, a professor of French at Weber State University and a delegate to the American Council on Teachers of Foreign Languages. "If we want to compete with China, we need to know their language and their culture. That's why they're close to being the No. 1 world leader. They've learned about us. We have to learn about them."
Stephen Whatcott, a world languages specialist for Salt Lake City School District, agreed the experience was amazing. Whatcott trains Salt Lake City School District's Chinese teachers. He says the trip will help him work better with exchange teachers because he's seen where they're from and observed the rigor, strictness and high expectations in Chinese schools.
Whatcott will be able to help them adapt to teaching in American schools, which greater emphasize creativity and individuality.
Hansen says it's important for American students to learn Chinese for economic reasons.
"China owns a large part of our country in investments," she said. "It's silly to think because they speak English, we don't need to learn Chinese. You don't understand their business culture if you don't speak their language."
And, she added, "the more languages and cultures you know, the better world citizen you become."