Thursday, October 14, 2010

Will Americans Really Learn Chinese?

Will Americans Really Learn Chinese?

The Times recently reported on the rise of Chinese-language instruction in American schools, a push supported by aid from the Chinese government. While language fads come and go — there was Russian during the cold war, then Japanese in the 1980’s, then Arabic after 9/11 — thousands of public schools have stopped teaching foreign languages in the last decade. Is the boom in Chinese language education going to last?

Some very interesting opinions

We’d Better Learn It

Imagine that your monthly mortgage bill arrives, unremarkable except that it’s suddenly written in Mandarin. Then, your bank sends over a Chinese translator to explain that you are falling deeper into debt. Mind-boggling? Well, this is America’s contemporary predicament as the Chinese finance a growing share of our national debt. Beijing holds $1.8 trillion in U.S. bonds and other instruments of borrowing. We are fused at the hip with the Chinese, economically speaking.

So, we better get to know them. They certainly want to know us, sending over hundreds of teachers to spark our children’s interest in Mandarin and East Asian ways. Affluent urban parents get it. (One San Francisco colleague felt compelled to apologize that his 6-year-old daughter had access only to a dual-language Spanish-speaking school, rather than to the Mandarin immersion he wanted.) But unlike Europe, the U.S. has no coherent strategy for making our society bilingual, unless you count our growing Babel of texting as a second tongue.

We are pathetically slow in realizing that East Asia will soon dominate the global economy. We believe, as did the last living Romans, that the American empire will reign forever. So, we fail to grasp the hard work, collective spirit and enormous investment in public institutions advanced by Chinese citizens.

(Comment: The smell of American decline. A bit overdone, I'd say. What (some) Americans really need nowadays is a kick in their self-deprecating butt. Any opinion, coming from the increasingly less affluent West Coast urban parents should obviously not be taken lightly. Judging solely by their involvement and investing acumen, Chinese should be given a wide berth. Fortunately, there are other reasons for studying Chinese and other languages.)

An expert opinion
Hongyin Tao, professor of Chinese language and linguistics

"We have heard claims that Chinese is among the world’s most difficult languages, if not the most difficult language, to learn. This is bit of an overgeneralization, as it really depends on who the learner is and what aspects of the language we are talking about. Chinese is not necessarily harder than, say Korean, for English (non-heritage) speakers. After all, the grammar is rather simple..."

(Comment: Chinese is not harder than Korean. Brilliant! He should be flipping houses.)

Dedicated to Monolingualism

Is the new interest in learning Chinese another language fad? We certainly hope not. But the U.S. record with foreign language instruction is underwhelming.

This has deep roots in American history. Benjamin Franklin’s excessive anxieties about German (and Germans) in Pennsylvania and Teddy Roosevelt’s chilling “We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language” have echoed through the ages.

Parochial, and Proud of It

Susan Jacoby is the author of nine books, most recently “The Age of American Unreason.”

"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. 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.

Americans have never been particularly interested in learning other languages and are even less interested today (with the exception of conversational Spanish).

Our problems are rooted in the much larger dumbing down of the American concept of what it means to be an educated person."

(Comment: hehe, my kind of gal)

How Europe Does It

"For decades, U.S. policy makers, business leaders, educators, and research organizations have decried our students’ lack of foreign language skills and called for better language instruction. Yet, despite these calls for action, we have fallen further behind the rest of the world in preparing our students to communicate effectively in languages other than English."

"I believe the main reason for this disparity is that foreign languages are treated by our public education system as less important than math, science and English."

(Comment: maybe they are less important?)

"In contrast, E.U. governments expect their citizens to become fluent in at least two languages plus their native tongue. "

(Comment: how good are Europeans at languages other than English? I'd venture to guess, not very good)

"Many U.S. school programs offer general exposure to languages but don’t expect proficiency."

Not Just a Passing Fad
Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California.
He is the developer of KuaiXue, a Chinese language software tool.

"Americans have a bad rap in linguistics. Europeans relish speaking multiple languages, we’re told, while Americans simply aren’t interested.

Unfair comparison. Most Europeans live within a couple hundred miles of another nation, so they speak multiple languages out of necessity."

"But CAN Americans learn Chinese? All those characters to memorize! And then the curveball–those dreaded, elusive tones! Much better instructional methods are needed."

(Comment: And here the good professor comes to save the day with his amazing software tool. A few others are about as disinterested as a fox in a henhouse. Bad rap? And with all those miles of Spanish books courtesy of your local Borders, the average American student must really rock at Spanish? China is close to the US? Americans sometimes have strange notions about European geography, languages, distances and about Europeans in general).

Room for debate? Indeed.


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