U.S. Kids Should Learn Chinese

Mandarin should be a core language offered in all American public schools. Pro or con?

Pro: A Business Plus

We live in a global and interconnected economy and we need to prepare our kids for it.

That preparation includes such skills as speaking outstanding English, since English remains a key language in global business, science, and technology. We must continue to address the alarmingly low levels of English proficiency we see in many of our students. Only 30 percent of U.S. students are proficient English-language readers, according to state test data.

We also need to prepare our kids to navigate a global workplace in which knowledge of languages and cultures other than our own will provide a key competitive advantage for higher-paying jobs.

China will inevitably be a major economic, political, and cultural force in our children’s future. We should prepare our students to engage, collaborate, and compete with their Chinese peers.

Any diplomat or international business professional will attest to the tremendous advantage that speaking and respecting a counterpart’s language brings to any negotiation or partnership. Increasingly, that colleague across the table will be a native Chinese speaker.

By teaching Mandarin in U.S. public schools, we are making a wise investment in one of the many vital skills our children will need to compete for high-skill jobs and thrive in the interconnected 21st-century economy.

Con: A Wrongheaded Expense

The language of business is money, not Mandarin. Only a small percentage of Americans currently speak Mandarin, even in the business world. This has not prevented us from doing business with China. In fact, our liberal trade with China has spiraled out of control to the detriment of our own economy.

The U.S. government owes Chinese investors more than $1 trillion, a result of their heavy investment in our debt. In addition, our manufacturing base has been replaced by outsourced labor and domestic unemployment now exceeds 9 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Our fiscal deficit has surpassed $1 trillion per year and our nation’s total debt has jumped to more than $14 trillion. We should not be using scarce tax dollars to teach American students to speak Mandarin.

China also practices mercantile trade policies, including a pegged exchange rate, artificially deflated currency, and a notoriously lax regulatory environment. Teaching Mandarin will only provide extra incentives for U.S. companies to continue supporting these irresponsible policies.

As an alternative to teaching Mandarin, let’s invest in teaching science, engineering, and mathematics in the hope of sparking innovation. Let’s focus on bringing production back to the U.S. and lowering the U.S. unemployment rate. If China wants continued access to our marketplace, let’s demand that it employ stricter labor and environmental regulations. We should also educate our children about all these issues. Otherwise, we will weaken our economy even further and do a great disservice to future generations.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg Businessweek, Businessweek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

Ghost

If all the Chinese kids are learning English, then it's probably not "absolutely critical" for American kids to learn Chinese. Of course, learning new languages (or anything) is always a good thing, but I believe your question was more about "learning Chinese in order to be competitive in the future."

Sander

I believe it is important that people realize that there are different cultures out there. Even though learning the language is a great start, there are still many steps to follow.

If we conclude that understanding other cultures is important, we could introduce cross-cultural-communication courses; learning about other cultures, other than the prototypes we all have.

Soapy Johnson

How bad is it? The Chinese now using fortune cookies to further discourage Americans in these tough economic times ... http://placeitonluckydan.com/2011/07/recession-fortune-cookies/

Anne

It would be nice if American public schools would teach more languages; however they're still struggling with the basics.

Budgets have been slashed to the bone. I'm not sure speaking Mandarin is as important as PE, art, or music in public schools.

It would be nice if public education was adequately funded, like it was for the Boomers as children. Look at all the businesses they developed!

wyl5326

Learning foreign language should be voluntary and not be mandated. What I can't understand is, why do we have to spend so much translating documents for benefits of immigrants who don't want to learn English, like ballots? I can speak, read, and write in 6 dialects and languages, and learned them as a child in private schools.

Brad Evans

Mr. Stewart, your viewpoint is evidence of why our economy is in the dumps. Your myopic outlook is bound to further hinder our competitiveness in the global economy. The numbers speak for themselves. There are more Chinese than any other peoples on the planet, and you want to pretend they don't really matter. Of course, we should also place more emphasis on hard science as is most of the world. Being open-minded, skilled, intelligent, and worldly is the only option to keep America on the forefront, not sticking our heads in the sand.

Marc Evans

I agree that China does have a substantial influence on economic and political grounds, and this will no doubt continue. If you bring this down to its bare logic though, you have provided statistics that show that only 30% of US students are proficient English-language readers. Would it not be more financially viable for money to be invested to improve this?

I agree wholeheartedly that it can be considered important to have other languages under one's belt as this can increase employment prospects and can drive the economy. If other languages are to be taught in public schools, would it not be better to have local languages? I doubt that every student wants to work elsewhere in the world but may want to move out of the US. In this sense it would be better for French, Spanish and Portuguese to be taught. This way the student would have better prospects in Canada, Mexico, and South America.

I also agree with the second section, which argues that the language of business is money. There have not been any major difficulties in carrying out business deals with Americans speaking Mandarin or the Chinese speaking English.

Implementing the mandatory education of Chinese, in my opinion, would just put extra strain on the US economy.

Robert Laughing

F0r the next 50 years, Mandarin or Shanghainese will be very useful: It's also a great way to discipline/expand the mind. You'll need at least 2000+ of those mind-numbing characters, with maybe 30 to 40 strokes, assuming you want to convey Amity and not call the Important One a 'Son of a Turtle' or some such serious aspersion!

RL

I think somewhere in between would be ideal.

Chinese is an incredibly hard language to learn, and simplified characters, which is what they use in the mainland, have been stripped of 80%-90% of their intended meaning. As such, learning to read/write becomes an exercise in rote memorization, making the learning process 2-3x longer than it would versus learning a language that has an alphabet and does not require memorizing characters.

That said, there's an increasing number of applications that make recognizing characters easier, from Google translate to browser pop-ups that make the process a lot faster.

I think perhaps learning some very basic Chinese could be taught in schools, and for those who have the time, discipline, and fortitude to go further, electives and AP classes to extend the process. But given the difficulty of the language, I wouldn't expect a lukewarm-motivated kid to stay the course beyond a basic level--there's just too much to memorize.

jjmiho@gmail.com

It's a yin and yang question. Paper (Han dynasty c. 100b.c.) certainly was a very important discovery--instead of using bamboo slats for records and the use of symbols for mathematics and records. But the it was the Arab and Indian literati that developed the numbers we use today; it would be difficult to do business with roman numerals or chinese numbers; try it. Even the number zero was developed in the middle east. Certainly language is important but it's the liberty to learn without restrictions that is more important, and this is where the west and America in particular do their best in the universities. Although the Greeks were into atomic thinking, it was scientists like Einstein that spoke German that changed universal ideas into solid ideas. So, too, Rutherford--I believe he was from New Zealand? I think he went to Canada to develop his electron ideas? We must not forget that Sputnik did not come out Cape Canaveral. So in business, know Chinese culture., then the language. If it's too difficult, hire a Chinese language knowledgeable about local culture. Think before you leap into language. When I was young it was Fench that was popular! Learn!

Robert

I am an American who speaks, reads, and writes near fluent Mandarin Chinese. And no, I am not a Chinese American, but a European American. So, it can happen. Chinese is not a difficult language to learn, especially the grammar. I found it far more easy to learn than Spanish, in fact. And, after learning Chinese for roughly 6 years, I have landed a job in an advertising firm here in Beijing. Learning Mandarin has helped me personally, but do American children have to learn Mandarin in school? That is a good question.

Many Chinese children learn English in their schools. Why? Because English is the language of business, science, and education all around the world. But, do they learn cultures? My experience is that they know far less about cultures of the world than our single-languaged American students. I have had conversations with Chinese who believe British are all blond haired and blue eyed. I have had conversations with Chinese who think South Americans all speak English as their first language. The list goes on, and I will spare people some of the more ridiculous conversations I have had. So, no, the Chinese do not learn cultures, and it is mainly because they think of their own culture as superior to all others.

Do Chinese learn English well. Actually, in my company we often have conference calls with places like India and Russia. Even though the Chinese make fun of their English, I have found that even Russians speak better grammar than the Chinese. It might have something to do with the fact that Chinese has no real grammar, and they can't get their heads around it. Chinese tend to focus on pronunciations, which, if you have ever talked to an Indian with perfect English, you would know that they don't even have good, proper pronunciation but still get by as some of the best engineers and business people in the world.

I can go on and on, but the fact remains that it is not only the US who fails in teaching languages and cultures. Even though China claims to educate their people on such topics, they fail completely in my experience.

This should put this argument into perspective, I think. Mandarin is important for those who will use it in their travel, hobbies, or even business. But to require all students to study mandarin is a waste of time and money. English is the business, science, and Education language of the world. We should be teaching other languages, but they should not be limited to Mandarin. For most, Spanish is more important.

As for culture; we can see that China's failure in this areas shows clearly that culture cannot be taught in the classroom. Lets say you read in your culture textbook that Kongfu came from China. Some students might come to China thinking that many Chinese know Kongfu, not realizing that the most advanced kongfu schools are all in California. I won't even start on Daoism, because Chinese today know nothing of the topic, unlike our American friends who have studied the topic from the hippie generations.

Robert

jjmiho,

Good post, but actually many scholars believe the 0 was first used in India.

Andrew G

I remember hearing the same thing about how we had to learn Japanese to compete when I was in high school in the early 90s. Some of my friends took it, and the only use it has been for them is watching undubbed anime.

Ray

I don't think we should learn Mandarin. It's not as easy as English, which uses an alphabet. Mandarin uses strokes, and it's too difficult.

FriendsofIndia

How totally absurd! Why do you need to learn Chinese? You should learn Indian.

India is the world's only super duper power after this economic crisis, and India is the world's greatest democracy. Here in Mumbai, there in Delhi, and there again in Pune, India shines while the world declines.

India is the undisputed leader of the BRIC countries. India is the world's only super duper power after this economic crisis, and India is the world's greatest democracy. Europe is drowning in its own feces of debt, and Japan, oh boy, Japan. And the BRICs, China is collapsing right on schedule as predicted, Brazil is overheating before it explodes, and Russia is subsisting on Indian money from our arms purchases. It leaves India, India alone, as the only world leader that matters. Here in Mumbai, there in Delhi, and there again in Pune, India shines while the world declines.

India's Tata has been lording over the world industries by purchasing such Western properties as LRJ and Corus, and making these former money pits a big success. Our Mittal has been overwhelming the world's steel makers by swallowing up Arcelor. Our mobile phones have been out-talking all other countries by gaining 100 million users every quarter. Our architects had designed and finished the world's largest airport in Delhi in Terminal 2. Our engineers have built the world's greatest hydro dam. Our road builders had just completed the world's longest bridge in Mumbai. Our prime minister has been presiding over these big international meetings by sounding our voices over all these heads of all your minor states. Our super aircraft carriers have been patrolling the world's oceans and scaring all the Ethiopia and Somalian pirates off their pants.

For all these million reasons, submit to your fate under our Hindu colossus, beg our 5-rupee meal middle classes, bow to our super powers.

Jai Hind!

Feb

Let's look at this from both sides of the coin.

Indeed, while most American students are still struggling with "the right and proper" English, by that I presume, it's the written as opposed to oral/verbal English (I find that speaking English is not a problem at all for most if not all Americans), learning more languages does not harm at all in my humble opinion.

Just like Spanish as a second language here in the States, when you're able to speak more languages, you've got the edge to reach out to more people out there. Plus, research shows that people who are able to speak more languages can think more creatively and effectively.

Despite being of Chinese descent myself, I am not able to speak any Chinese languages or dialects, and people who can speak Chinese clearly have the edge over me. Employers seeking out multilingual prospective employees might simply exclude me from the list.

On the other hand, not being able to speak Chinese doesn't have to be perceived as a disadvantage. A good point brought up by Ghost (the first comment), i.e. "if all the Chinese kids are learning English, then it's probably not "absolutely critical" for American kids to learn Chinese."

Both the U.S. and China can still deal with each other through many means and languages. There are always opportunities and ways out there.

So I think, for now, learning Chinese can be an additional subject/module while we're still trying to boost the English literacy. Those who are confident they can take up more languages still have the option to do so, while this does not hurt those who aren't.

Feb

An interesting article in favour of Learning Chinese (or more precisely, more languages):

http://healthland.time.com/2011/02/22/why-speaking-more-than-one-language-may-delay-alzheimers/

US_future

U.S. children should focus on learning math (the only universal language) and science to keep the country in the tip top shape. We are the current power house of the world as the result of the high number of people that studied math, science, and engineering after WW2.

Ken_England

Many people around the world have learnt the English language because of the long-held perception of better quality of life, better opportunities in different areas, and better access to films, music , art etc.

What the West has done well in the last 200 years or so is leading the world in many areas including science, technology, and so-called freedom of speech, expression, and creativity. And the yanks in particular have been the best at selling what is called the "American dream " to the world in its various films, fast food chains, etc.

The problem arises when the thick veneer of this dream starts to crumble and more and more of its faults are appearing to the world-wide audience.

The big question is whether the Americans and other wealthy English speaking countries can maintain these dream and continue to sell them to the world?

With China's rising economic might and the dwindling powers of the West, it's not surprising that more and more people might want to prepare themselves for the possibility of chasing after the "Chinese dream."

After all, one dream can be as powerful as another and we all know about dreams; they are replaceable and most human beings are fickle. They will choose to learn what they think will give them the best chance at life and not to forget the enjoyment factor too.

In summary, if English is to stay as the lingua franca of the world, the countries that rely on it to be so will have to stay relevant and influential in many areas.

The government, be it East or West that understands this fully, will know what it really needs to invest in.

Misti Swatt

Funny that nobody seems to have a problem with "socialized" health care when it comes to politicians, veterans and their families and so on (who exactly pays for them? That's right, the taxpayer does!) Why should only a few get that privilege? As Ted Kennedy said yesterday: Health care should not be a privilege that only the filthy rich can afford. And as to raising taxes: What exactly do you call it when McCain plans to make the employer health benefit taxable income? Beats me....

Lydia Lin

I agree mostly with Ken_England's point of view. Just as a car is a means of transportation, a language is first and foremost a tool for communication. At present, mastering Mandarin does open up job opportunities at home and abroad. The great ancient Chinese strategist Sunzi said, "Know yourself and know your opponent, then you will win 100 out of 100 battles." Therefore, we will need Mandarin experts for the sake of national military and financial security. In order to produce such experts, it helps to provide opportunities for students to learn the language. If a middle school or high school has extra resources, it could offer optional Mandarin classes along with Spanish, German and French. The serious students could go on with college-level Mandarin classes or receive special training in the language. In addition, the Internet is replete with resources for learning foreign languages. (By the way, you are welcome to visit my "Learn Chinese Weekly" blogsite at http://teachmechinese.wordpress.com)
On the other hand, many Americans who speak excellent Mandarin learned the language in their adulthood. Therefore, it seems to me that while the general public could be encouraged to learn Mandarin on their own, our Government should only invest in dedicated Mandarin language training programs that will be sure to produce the "bang for the buck".

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