George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social and Emotional Learning

Language: Learn What a Billion People Already Know

As China rises, speaking its language becomes a practical advantage.
    Credit: Rob Colvin/Getty Images

    PREDICTION: Chinese will be the new French.

    Across the country and theworld, Chinese languagelearning is exploding. Whathad been a mysterious andarcane language studied onlyby Asian specialists is now the subject of fast-growinginterest in schools and universities.

    In 2004, according to the Asia Society,263 American schools and school districts offeredChinese. That number had increased to477 by May 2007, when the College Board'sAdvanced Placement exam in Mandarin wasadministered for the first time. In addition,Minnesota, Oregon, and Utah all have pendinglegislation to fund Chinese-languageprograms in their schools. This linguistic seachange is tidal, not sudden, but the trend towardthe teaching and learning of Chinese,particularly Mandarin, as a valuable new secondlanguage, is clear to see.

    Get the best of Edutopia in your inbox each week.

    Trained teachers of Chinese are in shortsupply in American schools, however, sothe Chinese government has stepped in tohelp, and the Freeman Foundation, whichfosters East-West understanding, has fundedsix universities to develop teacher-trainingprograms for Chinese. From first graders inimmersion programs to MBAs seeking high-payingposts in Shanghai, the number ofpeople learning Chinese is growing fast.

    In response, the Chinese Ministry ofEducation developed Chengo, a Web sitefor English-speaking secondary schoolstudents, and China's National Office forTeaching Chinese as a Foreign Language hasestablished Confucius Institutes to promoteChinese language and culture around theworld, in partnership primarily with localuniversities and public school districts. Inthe United States, these facilities are locatedat more than a dozen universities and on aChicago Public Schools campus.

    The establishment of these institutescould go a long way toward clearing up misunderstandingsabout Chinese language andculture. For example, Mandarin, the officialnational dialect, has four tones, often themost challenging part of learning Chinesefor English speakers. One sound, such as"ma," can be written in many ways with suchdiverse meanings as "mother" or "horse,"and each must be correctly pronouncedin one of the four tones. Regional dialects,such as southern Cantonese, involve widelyvarying pronunciations but all share thesame characters. (In terms of regional variations,American English isn't that different.)To read a newspaper requires knowledge ofabout 4,000 characters.

    But within this complexity lies simplicityand beauty. Unlike Romance languages suchas French, for example, Chinese requires noconjugation of verbs and shifting of tenses.The Chinese simply say when an event oraction occurred. Chinese characters, oftenquite daunting at first, have their own systemof roots, called radicals, that give clues totheir meanings. For instance, words relatedto water all share the same three "droplets"on the left side of the character. Masteringthe writing of characters has the additionalbenefit of opening a window on the world ofChinese calligraphy, regarded as one of thehighest art forms, traditional or modern.

    And those who do take up this activity arein good company: As a Chinese official saidat the announcement of the AP Mandarinexam, "Many Americans think that Chineseis difficult to learn, but we have more than abillion people who speak it."

    Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

    What's Next > Science