American students soon will be able to learn Chinese over the internet at no cost, thanks to a new $3 million project spearheaded by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) in cooperation with the Chinese Ministry of Education.

U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige and Zhou Ji, vice minister of education for the People’s Republic of China, signed a memorandum of understanding Oct. 21 to jointly build a web-based system that will help students and educators learn a second language free of charge online.

Initially, the eLanguage Learning System (ELLS) will focus on teaching English and Chinese as second languages. ED officials say the project eventually will be expanded to encompass other languages, too.

Paige said the project will build cultural awareness and increase binational communications through the study of language. But the project also has practical implications for both nations.

Considering the size of China’s population and its rate of adopting technology, the web will soon be dominated by Chinese, said Alan Ginsburg, ED’s director of planning and evaluation. Also, China is an important trading partner with the United States, he said, and many Chinese students are interested in learning English.

Because there is a shortage of qualified foreign language and English-as-a-second-language (ESL) teachers in the United States, ED is trying to determine the viability of using the internet to teach a second language. Because ELLS will be free of charge, the system will reach millions of children in underserved populations, including the disadvantaged, illiterate, and limited-English proficient.

The United States will develop and pay for the English curriculum, and China will develop and pay for the Chinese content.

The eLanguage project will have animated language-learning materials that motivate and teach students, such as a computerized speech tutor to produce accurate facial movements synchronized to audible speech, ED said.

It also reportedly will include real-time assessment that individualizes instruction, as well as online language support systems such as chat rooms, key pals, multilingual dictionaries, and references to support learning.