Learning Chinese in Mexico: Children prepare for the future


Wo jiao Alberto.

Wo jiao Maribel. Ni ji sui?

Alberto and Maribel, sixth-graders at the Pedro Garcia Rojas elementary school here in central Mexico, introduce themselves to each other in Mandarin Chinese.

Their class also recites numbers, clothing items and weather conditions in a language that, to them, is about as foreign as it gets.

Some, like Damaris De Luna Sanchez, 11, move their hands the way a conductor directs an orchestra, slicing through the air to help them reach the proper intonations, the staccato flats and singsong vowelish sounds.

Their enthusiastic teacher, Gerardo Saucedo, is not Chinese nor has he ever traveled to China, but he has long been fascinated by its language and use of stylized characters as an alphabet.

Zai dong tian ni chuan shen me?” he asks his uniformed students, dancing down the aisle among girls in plaid skirts and knee socks, and boys in blue sweaters. “What do you wear in winter?”

The sight of youngsters speaking Chinese in the Mexican heartland is unusual, to say the least. Parents told that pupils as young as 9 would be taught Mandarin had been skeptical. Wouldn’t French or Italian (Romance languages closer to Spanish) make more sense? some wondered.

Savvy Mexican politicians have other ideas. State authorities launched the pilot language program in Aguascalientes, a working-class city, in hopes of jumping on the Chinese bandwagon. As China swiftly expands its reach across Latin America, Mexico is experiencing a flurry of new Chinese investments in traditional targets like nickel mines and in newer areas like car-part factories and electronics.

For many years, Mexico had lagged behind other big Latin economies, like Brazil and Chile, which saw China displace the United States as their principal trading partner. China spent an estimated $100 billion in Latin America in 2008, but Mexico had only a small piece of it.

Attitudes of xenophobia dating to the early 20th century, when Chinese workers came to the country to build the railroads, continue to inform Mexico’s restrictive immigration policies for Asians, said Sergio Martinez of the Mexican-Chinese Studies Institute at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. On top of that, Mexico’s notorious bureaucracy and the reluctance of many Mexican companies to compete with cheap Chinese products have slowed the expansion of trade relations.

Mexico was the last of the major Latin countries to sign free-trade agreements with Beijing. Until now, the economic relationship between Mexico and China concentrated mostly on the sale of Chinese products in Mexican markets rather than serious investment.

“The absence of a bilateral economic, political, academic, cultural strategy allowed the relationship to become tense and rudderless,” Enrique Dussel Peters, head of the institute, said by e-mail from Shanghai, where Latin American delegations are featured at the 2010 World Expo.

But, he added, “the potential and interest of both countries, especially in mining, agro-business, electronics, textiles and automobile production, is enormous.”

The city fathers of Aguascalientes are among those who want to take advantage as a model for all of Mexico.

“It’s like what happened with English,” teacher Saucedo said. “Years ago we didn’t study English, but eventually we realized we had to. Now it’s Chinese.”

Saucedo spoke outside the classroom as children scampered off to lunch. “Hola, lao shi,” (“Hello, teacher”) one boy called out as he ran by, then giggled, perhaps realizing he had mixed his languages.

Saucedo, 28, studied Chinese for four years in a university program. The first year, he recalled, the class started out with about a dozen students, but all except for him dropped out by the end of the term. “It is a very, very difficult language,” he said.

Last year, the state government picked him and nine other teachers to take a six-month immersion course to prepare them to teach Mandarin.

Chinese was introduced this school year for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders, a total of 126 students, and will be continued every year.

Remarkably, this is not the endeavor of an elite academy, nor the work of a Chinese-government cultural institute. Pedro Garcia caters primarily to low-income families. Most students are the sons and daughters of factory workers or come from single-mom homes. Pedro Garcia is a public school, meaning there’s no tuition; workbooks, with names like Mandarin Hip-Hop, are subsidized by the Mexican government.

“My parents say it’s really good to learn more than one language because maybe then I will get a scholarship,” said Damaris, the 11-year-old hand-waver. She is already practicing her new linguistic skills on a little girl, the daughter of a Mexican father and Chinese mother, in her church communion class.

Since 2001, students at Pedro Garcia have been immersed in English from first grade. In hopes of maintaining the English, the students are taught Mandarin in English. In other words, the translation goes from English to Chinese, not Spanish to Chinese.

They take five hours a week of Mandarin, four hours a week of English.

“It makes these students more competitive,” Saucedo said. “Sooner or later, there will be more Chinese companies here, and that means more jobs. If the Chinese see we have Chinese speakers, it will be a big advantage for them, and for us.”