As an American who speaks Chinese and a high school Chinese teacher, it was with some interest that I read the NYT’s most recent Room For Debate blog entry. With the caveat that, if my experience when I was asked to write something for RfD was any indication, the editors are looking from specific things from the people who write their perspectives, lets jump in.
First is Susan Jacoby, who, to be frank, did not acquit herself well. She starts:
The disproportionate media attention devoted to a mini-blip increase in Chinese classes in U.S. schools only underlines the parochialism and mediocre education standards that undercut America’s attempts not only to compete in the global economy but to lay claim to any cultural sophistication beyond the world of video.
Between 1997 and 2008, according to a survey by the Center for Applied Linguistics, the proportion of elementary and high schools offering some sort of instruction in Chinese rose from 1 to 4 percent. This is a meaningless statistic. Many of the schools rely on a Chinese government program that subsidizes salaries for teacher-ambassadors it sends to the lowly, economically deprived U.S.
Indeed, but the reason many schools rely on Hanban is that there aren’t enough qualified teachers in this country, not that there isn’t enough interest. Many schools without Chinese programs are looking to start them, and schools that have them are looking to expand them, but teachers are few and far between (hence the reason why I, with no formal Mandarin Education training or certification, could still get a job at an expensive private preparatory school). The relatively small jump from 1% to 4% is much more a measure of teacher supply than it is one of student demand. A more indicative measure of student demand might be found by looking at student enrollment in college Chinese classes, as most colleges can attract additional teachers more easily than high schools or middle schools. At my college, enrollment in the Chinese program more than doubled just in the four years that I was there.
Then Jacoby writes,
The fad for Chinese will pass — born, like the promotion of Russian studies during the cold war, out of the idea that we must know the language of our chief competitor.
The interest in Chinese runs a bit deeper than that, I think. China is not just our chief competitor, they are also an important economic partner in a way that the USSR certainly never was. Many of the students studying Chinese today have chosen the language because “it will be good for business”, not because China is “our chief competitor”.
The fad won’t fade because Chinese will be good for business. The instability of the CCP’s grip on power (if you think that exists) notwithstanding, no one thinks the PRC is going to retreat into real Communism again, and the world’s largest population (with its fastest-growing middle class) speaks the world’s most spoken language: Mandarin. Unlike the Russian fad, Chinese language education isn’t going anywhere. Enrollment is growing and will continue to, although it can only grow as fast as schools can find qualified teachers to hire.
Only 9 percent of Americans, compared with 44 percent of Europeans, speak a foreign language. The Web has only reinforced the smug American conviction that everyone worth talking to in the world speaks English.
But as Norman Matloff notes later in the story, that’s an unfair comparison, because Europeans, by definition, live in close proximity to places that speak other languages (how many Europeans, I wonder, speak non-European languages?). They share a common currency, so speaking multiple languages has obvious economic benefits. Until recently, Americans had little economic benefit to be gained from speaking any foreign language (that was the public perception, anyway), thus, most people didn’t really bother. But with the ties between the American and Chinese economies, not to mention the increasing number of Americans headed to China for business reasons each year, Chinese is becoming an economically beneficial language to speak. So says the current conventional wisdom, anyway. (I haven’t actually found it to be true, but I hear “Oh, you can speak Chinese? Boy, you must have an easy time finding jobs!” nearly every time I meet someone new.)
To be fair, the general point Jacoby is trying to make — and it’s one that several other debaters make, too — is valid. American schools place too little emphasis on foreign language, and they do it too late. Very few middle schools have Chinese programs (again, there is a lack of qualified teachers) and almost no primary schools have them.
Frankly, though, the biggest obstacle facing the growth of Chinese in US schools is the widespread misperception that the language is somehow impossible to study. In fact, I’d venture to guess that if you asked a bunch of Americans what they know about Chinese, they would tell you that it was very hard, but couldn’t say much more. People are generally shocked when I tell them that Chinese has no verb conjugation, and that its grammar is comparatively simple. More widespread understanding of how Chinese works would do a lot to take away the “mysteriously difficult oriental language!” mystique and, consequently, increase enrollment and reduce dropout rates. After all, if everyone is telling them a language is impossible, it sets children up with a good excuse to fail.
And in a country where children are coddled and their every deficiency is blamed on something external (by themselves, their parents, their doctors, even their teachers), another excuse is not what they need.
Also: My translation of Han Han’s recent post on the 50 cents party is now up at ChinaSMACK.