Not Much Progress in America's Chinese Problem

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Corbis

Cutting-edge programs like those at the immersion charter school Yu Ying in Washington, D.C., and reports of Chinese-language courses popping up in heartland America would all seem to suggest that Americans are on the fast track to learning Chinese—and ultimately understanding China. Indeed, it’s a thesis that just feels right. After all, with the recent economic crisis, Americans must appreciate better than anyone else our frightening loss of a competitive edge to the Chinese. You’ll be hard-pressed, the reasoning goes, to find anyone who doesn’t think grasping the language of the world’s fastest-growing economy is a good idea.

But the sad fact is that Americans are not learning Mandarin, the main tongue spoken in mainland China, in droves. Just take a look at the numbers. According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, in 2008 only 4 percent of middle and high schools that offer foreign-language instruction included Mandarin. That’s up from 1 percent in 1997. While that initially seems like respectable growth, the same survey reveals that 13 percent of schools still offer Latin and a full 10-fold more schools offer French than Mandarin. How is it that one a dead language and the other a language primarily used to impress your dinner companion can trounce one spoken by 1.3 billion natives and many millions more expats and immigrants abroad?

The answer is America’s lack of support for language instruction in the classroom. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act placed all the emphasis on math and reading, to the detriment of foreign language. The result has been cutbacks in courses, particularly to historically popular languages like French, German, and Russian. This lack of funding is especially worrying with regard to Mandarin instruction, which requires teachers and course material that are more expensive and difficult to acquire than those for, say, Spanish. The Chinese government has tried to kick-start instruction in the U.S., sending some 300 Chinese teachers to American classrooms in the last four years, to the tune of $13,000 per teacher. Convincing parents is another thing. According to a report this September by Wakefield Research, twice as many parents believe their kids should speak Spanish than Chinese.

The comparison between Spanish and Chinese is worth fleshing out, because I suspect both parents and students find the former much less daunting than the latter. Who wouldn’t be put off by all those mind-numbing characters and fast pace of speech? But counterintuitively, Mandarin is easier than Spanish in many ways: there is no need to conjugate verbs, match gender or number, nor worry about tenses. What is much tougher, however, is the sheer number of characters you have to memorize and the mastery of tones (depending on the inflection, the word ji could mean chicken or to remember). Since memorization, particularly when it comes to language acquisition, is a skill that gradually diminishes with age, it’s all the more important for kids to pick up Mandarin from a young age.

Yet there is no culture of teaching language to primary-school students in the U.S., at least outside progressive private schools on the coasts. While students in Europe are learning a second, third, or even fourth language in elementary school, our own are still laboring over cursive. Only 15 percent of elementary schools and 58 percent of middle schools offer any foreign languages, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics. It’s time to come to terms with globalization.

The need to train a culturally savvy workforce is something other countries understand much better. The Chinese government estimates that some 40 million foreigners are studying Mandarin, but according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, only 50,000 of them are in the United States.

Who’s beating us? Asia. The Beijing Language and Culture University Press, which is the biggest publisher of textbooks on learning Chinese in the world, says most of its students are coming from Japan and South Korea, not the U.S. Indonesians are learning Chinese en masse—a 42 percent jump from 2007 to 2009—while this September India’s education minister suggested adding Chinese to the state curriculum. In the U.S., Chinese is the fifth-most-popular language to learn, according to Tom Adams, CEO of the language-instruction company Rosetta Stone. In Japan and South Korea, it’s No. 2. Looks like it’s time to go back to school.

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