Teacher, professeur, profesor, laoshi, prepodavatyel -- however you say the word, Staples High School world language teacher Chris Fray will understand. He is fluent in five languages -- English, French, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and Russian -- and teaches Chinese to almost 100 students at the high school, having previously been a Spanish language instructor.

A former "teacher of the year" in the Westport school district, Fray, 46, has also traveled extensively. His voyages have taken him throughout the former Soviet Union, China and South America. Prior to joining the Staples faculty in 1996, he led tours to Russia and served as a Russian-English translator on fishing boats in the Bering Sea, which separates Alaska and Russia.

Fray sat down with the Westport News at Staples High School recently to discuss the importance of foreign language instruction, the challenges of learning Chinese and how his knowledge of Spanish saved him during an ill-fated bus ride in Peru many years ago.

Q: How did you learn Chinese?

A: "I had been to China in 1990 and 1994, and I had promised myself that I would learn the language. I was very fascinated by the culture. I wanted to go back and live there, work, and learn the language.

"Of course, when I got a job here at Staples I didn't know if that was going to happen, until two years later they initiated a sister city exchange program with Westport's (Chinese) sister city, Yangzhou.

"In the 1998-99 school year, I went and taught English at Yangzhou Middle School, and I started to teach myself Chinese. And when I came back from China, I continued to study on my own, and I just kept at it for many years."

Q: What are the challenges in teaching and learning Chinese?

A: "If you are training to learn Chinese, it's one of four languages that takes three to four times longer to reach a similar level of proficiency as say French or Spanish. It's very intensive, and it requires a lot of dedication. Certainly my students could speak to that.

"I don't have three to four times more classes a week to teach them, so what I do is try to focus on what I think are the two most difficult aspects of Chinese. One is pronunciation -- learning the four tones and pronouncing them correctly so that you understand. And the other is memorizing the characters -- learning how to recognize, read and write the characters. Those are probably the two most difficult aspects for non-native speakers to learn."

Q: Why is it important for American students to learn Chinese?

A: "We know that China is on the rise and will be one of the great superpowers of the 21st century. If we are viewed as not interested in their culture and not learning more about their language, that could have serious repercussions for our ability to work with them -- in business, diplomacy and the military. There are so many fronts on which we will be dealing with the Chinese; the more that we are familiar with their culture the better.

Q: "What do you think of the recent column by The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof that argued, despite the increasing popularity of Chinese language instruction, that American students should learn Spanish first?

A: "I think the real point -- that he and I agree on -- is that we need to get more focus on world language education and not be totally reliant on everyone speaking English. With the changing economic landscape, we do need to commit parts of our resources to some of our students learning Chinese.

"I think we still need to emphasize the learning of the Spanish language. There is Argentina, Mexico and other countries that are emerging, and I think we need to be very familiar with the culture and language of that region."

Q: How did your command of the Spanish language help when you were a tourist on that ill-fated bus ride in Peru?

A: "We got on the bus with local farmers, and we had an eight-hour trip back to Lima (from the Nazca Lines, a major Peruvian tourist attraction). On the way back, we were going on these crazy back roads, and we were stopped. This man got on. He was wearing a Yosemite Sam t-shirt and had a gun, and he pointed at the two of us [Fray and a friend] to come out.

"He took our passports, and we went into this little shack where six guys scattered like cockroaches when you opened the door and the light hit the room. So he (the man with the Yosemite Sam t-shirt) pulled us into a room, and we were scared because they didn't seem like official people.

"So they started talking to us, and I truly believe that the fact that I had been working on my Spanish for three months really helped us out. At first I couldn't even speak; I was that scared. Once I could, I told him who we were, and he did end up letting us go. I think it would have been a lot scarier if I didn't have that exposure to the language."

Q: Do you plan to learn any other languages?

A: "Two years from now, on my 48th birthday, I'm going to start Arabic. I think that will be my final big language. I may learn other languages, but that's the one I really want to become fluent in. And then I'll be done!"