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Next hot language to study: Chinese

Chicago schools are leading the way as they try to prepare students for an increasingly globalized world.

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The fourth-graders at Chicago's McCormick Elementary School don't know Mandarin is supposed to be hard to learn.

For most, who speak Spanish at home, it's becoming their third language. They've been hearing and using Chinese words since kindergarten, and it's now second nature to give a hearty ni hao when strangers enter the classroom.

"It's really fun!" says Miranda Lucas, taking a break from a lesson that includes a Chinese interview with Jackie Chan. "I'm teaching my mom to speak Chinese."

The classroom scene at McCormick is unusual, but it may soon be a common fixture in American schools, where Chinese is rapidly becoming the hot new language. Government officials have long wanted more focus on security-useful languages like Chinese, and pressure from them - as well as from business leaders, politicians, and parents - has prompted a quick growth in the number of programs.

Chicago itself is home to the largest effort to include Chinese in US public schools. The program here has grown to include 3,000 students in 20 schools, with more schools on a waiting list. Programs have also spread to places like Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, and North Carolina.

Proponents see knowledge of the Chinese language and culture as a leg up in a global economy where China is growing in importance. "This is beginning to bubble up as, 'This is an interesting way to begin to engage with the world's next superpower,' " says Michael Levine, director of education at the Asia Society, which has started five new public high schools that offer Chinese. "Globalization has already changed the arrangements in terms of how children today are going to need to think about their careers.... The question is when, not whether, the schools are going to adjust."

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