TORII STATION, Okinawa — Leading the charge in a new federal emphasis on foreign language, Department of Defense Dependents Schools in the Pacific will pilot a program this year to teach Mandarin to middle school and high school students.

Despite being among the world’s most widely spoken, Chinese languages rarely are part of any American school’s foreign language curriculum.

DODDS-Pacific is at the forefront of the U.S. government’s push to change that. Four schools will offer Mandarin this year: Seoul American Middle School, Seoul American High School, Kubasaki High School and Kadena High School.

Nancy Bresell, director of DODDS-Pacific, said school officials realize that “China is becoming an economic leader. By providing an opportunity for our students to learn Chinese, they will be in a better position to meet the demands of a growing global society.”

The new program supports the National Security Language Initiative the White House announced in January. The initiative outlines the importance of American proficiency in languages that reflect the world’s economic and security shifts.

Mandarin, Arabic and Hindi are among languages that have been identified as critical for Americans to know, according to the Department of State Web site.

The DODDS effort is on the cusp of a trend just starting to take root in a few scattered American public school districts.

Oregon, for example, has started an ambitious Chinese language initiative that begins with instruction in kindergarten and continues all the way through the University of Oregon. The Portland school district won a grant from the Department of Defense to fund the program.

The Department of Defense Education Activity is taking on two of the critical-need languages. In addition to Mandarin in the Pacific, Arabic will be taught by DODDS in Europe.

Bresell said the Chinese classes will expand to other schools in the Pacific if they’re successful. She said she also hopes to have the language taught at elementary school level.

But if that happens, DODDS-Pacific will have to re-evaluate its foreign language program, she said.

“Something has got to give,” Bresell said, adding that the schools simply aren’t large enough to add a language without dropping one currently being taught.

The districts will have to get creative to make Mandarin classes available in a way that is cost-effective, she said. One possibility is to combine online learning programs with a teacher of Mandarin who travels among the schools.

“If there are children who want to learn a language like Chinese, I want to make it available to them,” Bresell said.

DODDS-Pacific also is launching a Spanish immersion program for elementary school students. Kindergartners and first-graders will get 90 minutes per week of instruction in the language.

The pilot program will be taught at eight schools this year: Bob Hope Primary School and Stearley Heights, Seoul American, Osan, Andersen, McCool, Yokota East and Yokota West elementary schools.

Bruce Derr, DODDS-Japan district superintendent, said the Spanish-language instruction would be expanded to all 12 elementary schools in Japan next year with a goal of ultimately bringing it to every grade.

“Some of our larger high schools presently offer French or German,” he said.

Bresell said, “We’re thrilled about it.”

She said she believes that starting instruction at a young age is critical in building language skills.

The program is to be expanded in 2007 to additional grades in the eight original pilot schools and to kindergarten and first grade in other schools.

Vince Little contributed to this story.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now