Will Americans Learn Chinese?

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.

A high school Chinese class in Minnesota
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.

Chinese Language Students at IUP

Jacoby continues,

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.

foreigners learning Chinese at the Shaolin temple
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.

Your thoughts?

Also: My translation of Han Han’s recent post on the 50 cents party is now up at ChinaSMACK.

0 thoughts on “Will Americans Learn Chinese?”

  1. Chinese might seem easy, but if you compare it to English, the “simplicity” becomes a stumbling block. English has a lot of fluff that people want to translate into Chinese, but you just don’t need to.


  2. Whenever I hear that some American friend’s first-grader or kindergartner is studying Chinese, I get really happy, but also a bit worried—about the quality of the instruction, about how much that kindergartner could possibly remember of the language later (how much French do I remember), etc. But then… they’ll have that knocking around in their head in some form, no matter what. And that can only be useful later in terms of their ability to learn some language, any language, and their ability to take in other cultures.

    And I agree with Custer that there’s more to the current fascination with China and learning Chinese than just the “learn your competitor” stuff. All in all, the whole thing is a positive development…


  3. Great post. I liked your insight about Europeans have a greater incentive to learn foreign language. I did not consider that before, and was one of the smug bystanders who lamented the lack of opportunity and requirement for a foreign language in primary and early secondary schools. On the difficulty learning Chinese, I think what most people have trouble with is not the grammar, which is as you say relatively straight forward, but on recognition, memorization and use of the thousands (most people agree it’s around ~4000) logographs needed for basic communication.


  4. Yeah. My contention is that any language has its hard bits. In Chinese, it’s tones and the 汉字, in English (or French) it’s the grammar and conjugation. Personally, I have spent less time studying Chinese than I spent studying French, but I speak it better and find it much easier (my sticking point with French was always verb conjugation).

    And frankly, the 汉字 aren’t really difficult, they’re just time consuming — you have to spend the time to sit down and learn them. Tones…yeah, they’re hard, but by no means impossible.

    Anyway, my point is just that spreading the idea Chinese is “impossible” for Americans to learn isn’t helpful (Chinese people are just as guilty of this as Americans, by the way. The number is probably decreasing, but I’ve run into plenty of Chinese who seem to think there’s something so inherently complex about Chinese that it’s impossible for foreigners to learn.)


  5. You make good points. Man, that RfD piece was abominable. One writer after another talking about how teaching your children Chinese will get them rich. Basically there are two separate issues: first, why is foreign language proficiency for american students so low?; second, what does it mean that there’s an increased demand for Chinese in the classroom.

    Most will agree that it makes no sense to START teaching students a foreign language at 13 – that’s exactly the age your ability to pick up a language begins to decrease. But as an American mandarin speaker I question this recent trend of introducing Mandarin to elementary schools. People might think that Mandarin is ‘useful’, but in practice, it’s only useful if you intend to use it (or have the opportunity to do so)! Language is many things, one of which is culture. And I think it makes more sense to broaden young students’ understanding of American culture by teaching… Spanish! The language of one of our neighboring countries, the language of our closest neighboring continent! The second most spoken language in our own country! Not to mention the closer historical link the US shares w/ Spain than China.

    Then again, after the age of thirteen some westerns will never be able to learn mandarin because they will hit a wall with the tones. So for some the only option is learning at an early age, though of course there’s no way to determine which children these limitations apply to.


  6. Jacoby’s piece was certainly abominable, although I would not use that word of the other contributions. Jacoby’s narrow-minded, defeatist argument could be summed up as “Well, Americans are too arrogant and complacent to learn foreign languages, and our idea of educated is too dumbed down already, so why bother?” Why not turn that around and say “We’ve got to shake off this arrogant complacency and rebuild our education system so that we can compete with the best of them, like we used to do!”

    He Weile’s comment reminds me of how incredibly narrow the definition of “useful” has become in the Anglo-Saxon countries. “Useful” should not mean “What little people can see has an immediate, practical, direct application to the situation as it now stands.” Was I the only one who noticed Pufahl’s comment: “A recent E.U. meta-study presented scientific evidence that multilingualism contributes to creativity by enhancing mental flexibility, problem solving capability, language awareness, learning capacity and interpersonal ability.” Sure, learning a language won’t change a flat tyre or balance your budget, but it is certainly useful – just in a less direct, less obvious way. And no, you don’t need any kind of guarantee to be working in or with China in the future to bother learning Chinese. Although I can no longer function at all in either Russian or German, I don’t regret the years spent learning those two languages precisely because they stretched and exercised my brain in ways that had later flow-on (just not so obvious) benefits (like helping me learn Chinese, would you believe?). The same applies to French, except that I still read that language with ease.

    “Then again, after the age of thirteen some westerns will never be able to learn mandarin because they will hit a wall with the tones.”

    So climb the wall. Or get a sledgehammer and break it down. Or look for a gate. Or find some other way to get across. It’s not always easy to find a way that suits your learning style to get across the wall, I know, but there is always a way.

    And I strongly, strongly disagree that Europeans have any greater incentive to learn foreign languages than anybody else. Europe had one lingua franca, at least among the educated (Latin, with perhaps classical Greek playing second fiddle) for hundreds of years. What’s to stop that happening again? And see that quotation from Pufahl’s piece above. And globalisation.


  7. Yeah, that stuff about hitting a wall with the tones is nonsense, too. Hell, Da Shan didn’t start Chinese until college, right, and look at him? We all hate him but he’s got pretty flawless tones.


  8. “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.)”

    So true. I had a vague notion learning Chinese would be good for getting jobs, but several years down the track I sometimes think I would have been better off selling my soul and getting a useful degree like law or accounting. Sigh.
    But then again, Chinese is fun and satisfying to learn in a way that many other subjects are not.


  9. I’ve always thought the hardest part of learning Chinese would be the ostensible “simplicity” of its grammar, not the tones or hanzi’s.

    Learning Japanese is like a zillion times easier for a Chinese person than someone who speaks an Indo-European language, but the most maddening thing about learning Japanese is I never know how to be Japanese-rashii (or 地道 in Chinese). There’re an infinity of hidden rules that when you open your mouth or starting writing, people immediately know you’re a foreign speaker. So my impression is that Chinese is more or less the same.


  10. True. Also, you can always get a job teaching Chinese if nothing else, assuming your pronunciation is 标准 enough, because of the aforementioned teacher shortage.

    In fact, if anyone’s interested in a Chinese teaching job in the states, let me know, because I probably won’t be teaching next year and they’ll want someone to replace me…


  11. “Why Westerners bother to learn Chinese, when Chinese themselves want to learn English?”
    I think that is a key issue for the many westerners who start to learn Chinese when they are at university. Competing with millions of Chinese who have been learning English since primary school, not to mention many more foreign born Chinese, Singaporeans, Hong Kongers, and Taiwanese who are effectively bilingual, means that starting Chinese that late puts you at a distinct disadvantage in terms of using it as a kind of employment advantage.


  12. Personally, one of the main reasons I busted my ass to study Chinese during the first year or so of my residence in China was because I was so tired of people trying to draw me a picture when I walk up to the 鸡蛋饼 cart. They were always so surprised when I actually opened my mouth, though, because, and I don’t mind saying it, my pronunciation is super 标准.

    As far as the tones go, sure, it was difficult at first, but the absolute most important thing in my opinion is to develop good habits from the very beginning and make it instinctual that when you say things like 我喜欢, you change the first third tone to a second tone without even thinking about it, etc. etc. I still suck at reading, though, because I never really put in the time for it, just like Custer said. If I really need to know something, I just ask someone else.


  13. For most mandarin students, the tones take a little work but can be mastered to biaozhun level after a few months in the mainland. But I do know a number of Mandarin students who speak ‘jongwhen’ – though they can get the consonants down pretty well, the tones elude them and they plateau pretty quickly as a result. I do think that for this reason some westerners, once the hearing reflexes have matured, will never be able to pick up genuine chinese.

    What?!? We hate Da Shan?!? But I want to BE Da Shan!!


  14. I’ve been a teacher in the U.S. for nearly a decade, and Chinese never fails to get the class excited. A few years ago, to calm or give a treat to my 3rd graders I used to teach them how to “sign” 6 through 10, or I would teach them exciting things like subject pronouns, “I love you”, etc, haha. Something about China just appeals to people of all ages. I should add that most of these kids weren’t even traditional Americans, they were kids of recent Mexican immigrants, and some of them barely spoke English themselves.

    I got my current job, in a very very competitive economy, because I speak Chinese. This impressed my school’s principal, and it has opened other doors for me as well. I know a lot of people feel that Chinese is overrated, and perhaps that is so, but I wonder some people who know Chinese aren’t marketing themselves well, or are in the wrong arena.

    I think the comparisons to the fads of learning Russian and Japanese are somewhat appropriate, but given the huge population in China, the unflagging nationalism in China and the explosive growth of Chinese expat populations worldwide, over time there will be a substantial difference with Chinese. I predict that there will be (probably in Africa) a nation that adopts Chinese as a “second” language or a regional language of some sort, and probably for some sort of monetary incentive from China. Maybe that sounds crazy, but… people forget that for all the Chinese in North America, the place where Chinese really are making inroads is in Africa. One of my Cameroonian classmates in Shanghai (years ago) told me there were Chinese everywhere in Cameroon, doing anything including driving cabs. Very interesting!

    What will matter is how much these Chinese communities assimilate. For all their economic might, Japanese expats rarely build the kind of loud, gaudy expat communities that other expat communities do. Russia is rapidly depopulating and aging, and Spanish speakers don’t have the economic might to really force the issue. We’d rather dance and party… I know I would, haha.


  15. the reason I speak Chinese and live in China is because I wanted to learn Japanese.
    Yeah you remember the late 80s – the Japanese were going to take over the WORLD!!!!! – buying up Maui, stock market through the roof…..(sound familiar) everyone had to learn Japanese…..unfortunately at the school I was going to the 3 classes of 20 student beginner Japanese classes were full – someone suggested I study Mandarin – no one took that except for Cantonese speakers looking for an easy credit – I took the one beginner class with 5 students…

    so if someone asked what language they should learn now……Hindi!


  16. I am a lingist speaking several Chinese dialects in addition to English and I am seeking a teaching position. Should anyone interested in hiring me, give me a call or e mail me.


  17. we need qualified and certified teachers in this country. It is easy to speak a language but to teach. We need to have qualified and certified teachers who understand westerners’ learning styles. A good book that I advise you is Chinese for everyone: for all ages and learning styles, or turtle Chinese characters. They can help westerners learn Chinese. no Chinese is not hard if you have certified Chinese teachers who know how to teach Chinese.. you can be a NATIVE SPEAKER AND UNABLE TO REACH OUT TO KIDS.. THIS IS THE PROBLEM WITH A LOT OF NATIVE SPEAKERS.


  18. Hello,

    I am curious as to where you learned Chinese, and how long, seeing as you are a Chinese teacher in the US.

    I am a US citizen currently residing in Taiwan, studying Chinese. I am in my third year of study, but am planning to return to the US after next semester.

    I am doing some research regarding the viability of Chinese language learning in the US, which is how I came across this post. Here is Taiwan I teach at a 補習班 school, which you may be familiar with. They are a huge success here in all areas of study, but particularly for English. The schools vary in their degree of intensity, but for the most part are a fun and easy going way for students to be engaged in language learning. In fact many schools function simultaneously as an extra curricular language course and after school program or day care center.

    I think, with the right approach, this kind of school or program (for learning Chinese of course) may have potential in the US.

    I would love any feedback on this subject.

    Thank you.


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