George Lucas Educational Foundation

Language: Learn What a Billion People Already Know

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

PREDICTION: Chinese will be the new French.

Across the country and the world, Chinese language learning is exploding. What had been a mysterious and arcane language studied only by Asian specialists is now the subject of fast-growing interest in schools and universities.

In 2004, according to the Asia Society, 263 American schools and school districts offered Chinese. That number had increased to 477 by May 2007, when the College Board's Advanced Placement exam in Mandarin was administered for the first time. In addition, Minnesota, Oregon, and Utah all have pending legislation to fund Chinese-language programs in their schools. This linguistic sea change is tidal, not sudden, but the trend toward the teaching and learning of Chinese, particularly Mandarin, as a valuable new second language, is clear to see.

Trained teachers of Chinese are in short supply in American schools, however, so the Chinese government has stepped in to help, and the Freeman Foundation, which fosters East-West understanding, has funded six universities to develop teacher-training programs for Chinese. From first graders in immersion programs to MBAs seeking high-paying posts in Shanghai, the number of people learning Chinese is growing fast.

In response, the Chinese Ministry of Education developed Chengo, a Web site for English-speaking secondary school students, and China's National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language has established Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese language and culture around the world, in partnership primarily with local universities and public school districts. In the United States, these facilities are located at more than a dozen universities and on a Chicago Public Schools campus.

The establishment of these institutes could go a long way toward clearing up misunderstandings about Chinese language and culture. For example, Mandarin, the official national dialect, has four tones, often the most challenging part of learning Chinese for English speakers. One sound, such as "ma," can be written in many ways with such diverse meanings as "mother" or "horse," and each must be correctly pronounced in one of the four tones. Regional dialects, such as southern Cantonese, involve widely varying pronunciations but all share the same characters. (In terms of regional variations, American English isn't that different.) To read a newspaper requires knowledge of about 4,000 characters.

But within this complexity lies simplicity and beauty. Unlike Romance languages such as French, for example, Chinese requires no conjugation of verbs and shifting of tenses. The Chinese simply say when an event or action occurred. Chinese characters, often quite daunting at first, have their own system of roots, called radicals, that give clues to their meanings. For instance, words related to water all share the same three "droplets" on the left side of the character. Mastering the writing of characters has the additional benefit of opening a window on the world of Chinese calligraphy, regarded as one of the highest art forms, traditional or modern.

And those who do take up this activity are in good company: As a Chinese official said at the announcement of the AP Mandarin exam, "Many Americans think that Chinese is difficult to learn, but we have more than a billion people who speak it."

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

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is not surprising that learning the Chinese Language is exploding around the world, but, let's realise that this is due mainly to the strong Chinese economy and for trading purposes. It is ironic that Governments in many countires see learning another language as useful only for economic purposes!

Those of us who are involved in teaching LOTE (Languages other than English)know well the benefits of learning another language for cognitive development, lateral thinking, literacy skills and to develop intercultural knowledge. All languages are important and learning of another Language should be encouraged. Countries such as America and Australia sadly lag behind other countries whose population are bilingual.

In an increasingly globalised world it is essential that schools and universities are funded by our Governments to provide language programs and training for specialist language teachers. Lets give everyone a chance to learn a second, third ...or more languages!!!

Daniel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The school at which I teach has been part of a grant from the Chinese government that has allowed us to have two visiting Chinese teachers at our school. These Chinese teachers were brought to America to teach our students about their language and culture. However, back in 2005 when we received our first set of Chinese teachers, our faculty was anything but courteous and respectful. The social studies department head ran around the school talking about how the Chinese teachers were here to train the students on how to be good Communist, the veteran teachers were upset because these visiting teachers were not certified staff and therefore not unionized. The adults ignored these women who were thousands of miles away from home. I reached out and made friends with one, who ended up working closely with me. My lessons flourished and the students learned a great deal, including some conversational Chinese. Since the program started in 2005 we have had two visiting teachers to our school. One has remained the same and the other spot has been filled by four different women. The first had to leave because she discovered in America that she was pregnant and the following two had to finish their education in China.
Not only has the staff refused to be accepting of their culture and them, but members at my school go out of their way to prevent students from learning about Asian cultures and societies. Instead they insist on focusing on Latin American and African cultures. The teachers at my school refuse to even address the Chinese teachers by their given names, instead they call them by an Americanized name. Currently the lady working in my school is name Li Yanni, Li being her last name. But because Yanni sounds like Amy (supposedly) all the ignorant American teachers call her Amy instead of her given name. Those of us who are culturally accepting and aware refer to her as Yanni or Li Yanni.

Chinese culture and language is big now, and this is what the future of America will be dealing with. We need to teach them properly now, so they can be able to deal with the ever changing world around them.

Peggy Bass's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In response to Daniel about the Chinese need to teach some Americans some manners was a sad commentary on the unfortunate fact that even teachers can be ugly Americans. I am saddened and embarrassed for us as a society that we still hold such prejudices and are unable to not only accept others from other countries as equals but still can't even respect people of other color or cultures even though they are born here in our own country. If a teacher cannot have the correct principles, dignity, and intelligence of an ethical person, how do we as a nation expect to sustain any semblance of leadership in this world when the children are exposed to such intolerance? Thank you Daniel and Dr. Chen for your integrity and leadership.

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