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U.S. Wants One Million Students Studying Mandarin by 2020

A multinational effort to boost the number of U.S. students studying abroad in China has expanded its focus to stateside Mandarin language learning.

The push, led by the US-China Strong Foundation, aims to increase the number of American students studying the language to 1 million by 2020, a fivefold increase. The effort recognizes the growing importance of U.S.-China relations and aims to prepare a new generation of U.S. citizens to engage with China through commerce and culture.

"We're looking at this as a lifelong effort to ensure we have leaders who understand China and can help manage what we believe is the most important bilateral relationship in the world," said Carola McGiffert, CEO of the Washington-based US-China Strong.

To reach that goal, the initiative aims to create a model Chinese language and culture curriculum that is flexible enough to allow local school systems to tailor it to their needs.

The foundation also hopes to promote development of language-learning technology and online instruction tools, form a vocal coalition of governors and mayors who support Mandarin learning in public schools, and double-down on efforts to create a homegrown corps of teachers able to teach the language. Right now, U.S. schools rely heavily on guest teacher programs that supply instructors for two to three years.

The number of elementary-aged students learning Mandarin in the United States is on the rise, in part because of U.S.-based Confucius Institutes, a nonprofit network tied to the People's Republic of China.

Roughly 10 Mandarin dual-language programs existed in the United States before 2009. That number had swelled to nearly 200 by last fall.

In a joint press conference in September 2015 with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Obama announced the launch of the "1 Million Strong" effort.

"If our countries are going to do more together around the world then speaking each other's language, truly understanding each other, is a good place to start," Obama said, noting that two of Vice President Joe Biden's grandchildren are studying Mandarin.

The US-China Strong Foundation was established in 2013 as the 100,000 Strong Initiative with an initial goal of helping 100,000 U.S. students study in the country.

The recent rebrand reflects its expanding mission. The foundation also wants to encourage socioeconomic, geographic, and racial diversity among stateside Mandarin learners, McGiffert said.

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