Tang Beiyi is no stranger to teaching an unfamiliar language. But usually she teaches English back home in Chengdu, a city of 14 million and growing in southwest China.
This year Beiyi finds herself in Willmar, teaching Mandarin to Willmar High School students.
Beiyi describes her students as enthusiastic about their Chinese studies, and she said the interest in Chinese culture is clearly spreading beyond those enrolled in her class.
"Sometimes when I meet somebody in town they say ... 'Hello — 'ni hao' in Chinese ... to me," she said. "I think learning Chinese will become more and more popular."
The Chinese program at Willmar High has grown fast since it started in 2006 — so much so that later today, a group of its students will head to China, part of a program that few rural schools in the state have. Next year more than 260 Willmar students will take Chinese.
A State Department initiative helped bring Beiyi to Willmar, but it probably wouldn't have happened without Todd Lynum.
Lynum was a Lutheran pastor in nearby Svea in 2006, when he heard Willmar's superintendent interviewed after she accompanied then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty on a trade mission to China. Lynum, who studied Mandarin in Taiwan as a college student, called the district office. Soon, he was running an after-school Chinese club.
“The kids are well aware; they tell me they really see that China is coming on strong.”Todd Lynum
It was popular, so the administration decided to offer formal classes the following semester. Lynum quit his church job, and is now the district's full-time Chinese teacher.
Lynum said Willmar is a more natural place for this kind of cultural exchange than many might think. Because of new immigrants, Somali and Spanish are already spoken all over town. Given China's prominence in world affairs, he said, adding Mandarin to Willmar's global mix only makes sense.
"The kids are well aware; they tell me they really see that China is coming on strong," he said. "It's powerful, and it's a player on the world stage now. And we need to understand it. And that just delights me to hear that."
The popularity of Mandarin in Willmar has come at the expense of more traditional language programs. The district no longer offers French and German because interest dropped off. It's a shift that's happening throughout Minnesota.
According Minnesota Department of Education report, from the 2000-2001 school year to last year, Chinese language enrollment in K-12 schools grew 586 percent, to over 5,700 students. During the same time period, enrollment dropped 23 percent in French classes, 21 percent in German classes and 83 percent in Russian classes. Spanish was still by far the most popular language and continues to grow.
Nancy Rhodes, the director of world and foreign language education at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, said there is a connection between language learning and foreign policy.
"When trade with Japan was really big in the '80s and '90s, that's when Japanese started become more popular," she said. "Russian became popular in the '70s and '80s... Another language now that's increasing in importance in our schools is Arabic... So we do tend to reflect what's going on internationally in the languages that we're taught."
At Willmar High, juniors Rose Jackson and Phil Nadolny play a game to practice their Chinese.
Jackson and Nadolny are part of Willmar's first student group traveling to China. The opportunity doesn't seem lost on either of them.
"They're a lot of political relations and such going on between the United States and China," Nadolny said.
Jackson hope the trip will help him speak Chinese better.
"I have to think faster when talking to someone who speaks it naturally," she said.
As for Beiyi, she'll head back to China this summer, leaving behind a school and hundreds of Chinese-speaking kids.