Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Will Americans ever learn Chinese? Or any other language?

In recent years the amount of Chinese language teaching in schools in the world increased from zero to a few percent. In the US there is a lot of public opinion about teaching children and teenagers Chinese - know your enemy (just like learning Russian during the Cold War, learning Japanese in the 80s and learning Arabic after 9/11).

The New York Times recently covered this subject in an online debate.
The debate's main outcome was that it is questionable that Chinese language will be succesful as America is strongly monolingual and language learning is not as important as math or science.

Apart from this argument however, there are a few other things to consider. First of all, the level of language teaching in the US is not very high. There are no experts in teaching Chinese language at all, so through contacts with China and Hanban, Chinese teachers are imported along with their archaic teaching methods. If I have come to realize one thing over the past years, it is that the Chinese teaching system and way of learning, does not work for European (or American) pupils. Cultural differences such as teacher-student hierarchy, individualism, etc are all part of the game here.

Therefore, huge developments are still necessary for teaching Chinese to children. I am not sure it is worth the investment. Why?

First of all, English is still the dominant language in the world.

Second, although basic Chinese grammar is fairly easy, Chinese is not an easy language to learn. One has to learn to pronounce and recognize four tones and learn to read and write the Chinese characters. The Chinese pronunciation and writing system severely limits Chinese as an active language. It is almost impossible to successfully adapt loan words and new characters cannot be invented.

Third, in comparison it is easier for Chinese people to learn English, especially because currently language learning starts at a young age in China. If most Chinese in the academic and business community already speak English, it is not really necessary for all these American kids to learn Chinese, or is it?

Fourth, it may all just be a hype. Yes, China is important and will be important, but so are Brazil, Germany, Japan and the Arabic World. And we will see more of India, Vietnam, South Africa and Nigeria in the years to come.

Finally, many university students successfully learn Chinese in their Asian Studies curriculum. They are driven by the joy of learning, the fascination of the far eastern culture and the love of knowledge. These motivate them to continuous efforts on a daily basis to apprehend this language and culture fully.

Based on these arguments, I belief that it is not worth the million dollar investment needed to bring Chinese language to the American school curriculum. I also belief, that without a deep fascination for this vast and fascinating different culture, learning Chinese (or any other language) is of no direct use. Language and culture are so intertwined in China, you need to appreciate both to understand and learn the language. Simply shipping your kid to a bilingual school will be of no use at all. Americans seem to be proud of their international ancestry, but seldom do you see immigrants learn their mother language. Why not send your kids to Russian, German, French, Dutch or Gaelic classes to learn more about their own background and culture?

Chinese schools already do exist successfully in the US, for the children of Chinese immigrants who hold on to their history and culture while also learning to adapt to their new homeland. I recommend that American parents who want their children to learn more than one language, should refer to the language and culture of their ancestors first. If a fascination with China does develop at a later age, the child can make its own commitment to learning Chinese, many have done this successfully before by attending classes in China for one or two years or studying Sinology at university.

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