Keeping Language Learning Alive — Chinese as an example

Alternative Methods for Maintaining Foreign Language Programs

by tawny tsang

The ironic thing about saving $17 billion is the potential residual costs of doing so. President Obama’s proposed federal budget will cut or eliminate 121 federal programs[1]. This includes spending on education, despite the present need for intellectual resources in the workforce.

According to the New York Times, a recent government poll showed that thousands of public schools have stopped teaching foreign languages in the last decade. While this may be monetarily beneficial in the present economic state, it will constrain America’s future economic and political development. Language barriers may impede the U.S.’s capability to establish strong global business and diplomatic relations in years to come. In short, multilingualism and opportunity go hand in hand.

Others beside Washington have recognized the importance of language learning, however, and this has led to alternative sources of funding for language education. For instance, in a national trend that policy makers seem to have overlooked, the Chinese language is currently receiving increased attention from public and private funders of education. The emergence of this trend coincides with the increased economic development of China; according to the World Economic Outlook Database, China’s GDP increased by roughly 325% from 2000 to 2006 alone.

The Chinese government has been one large contributor to the trend. With help from the Chinese government, more U.S. primary and secondary schools have been able to offer Chinese in the past couple of years. The Chinese Language Ministry has been sending teachers from China to schools all over the world. Because the Chinese government is paying a portion of their salaries, this puts less financial stress on school districts. This also allows the U.S. and China to engage in cultural exchange by providing teachers and students unique learning opportunities.

Educational television has also been picking up on this trend. Television is certainly an instrumental and influential venue that can serve as another alternative medium to promote language learning and cultural exchange. For example, Nickelodeon has an animated series named “Ni Hao, Kai-Lan,” which introduces elements of Chinese language and culture to its viewers. Prior to that, from 2001 to 2002 PBS Kids aired a series called “Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat” based on a children’s book by Amy Tan. This program familiarized the audience with Chinese cultural values such as collectivism and filial obligation. Moreover, PBS is publicly funded by viewers, suggesting a general consensus on the importance of language learning.

Despite the national cuts to educational funding, the increase of interest in Chinese has been reflected in school curriculae as well. Currently, the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington estimates that of the American middle and high schools offering a foreign language, the proportion offering Chinese is up to 4 percent from 1 percent since three years ago. Including Chinese in foreign language curriculum not only mirrors the global economic trends, it provides a space for children to continue to develop skills learned from early educational television programs.

It is extremely interesting that the fastest growth in number of schools offering Chinese is occurring in states like Ohio, Georgia, and Utah. The demographics of these regions, primarily Caucasian, contrast with that of Chinese heritage communities, which are primarily located on the East and West coasts. As we can see, even individuals with no Chinese ancestry are interested in learning the language – and for a good reason, as doing so will surely open up potential opportunities in the next ten years.

A similar trend in growth of interest in Japanese language and culture occurred in the 1980s when Japan emerged as an economic powerhouse in the automobile and technological industries. However, after the economic growth slowed down, the initial interest in Japanese language and culture quickly declined.

Unlike Japan’s case though, certain Chinese industries that have penetrated the global market face little competition. These include industries in precious metals such as gold that cannot be substituted or replicated. Therefore, America’s interest in the Chinese language may prove to be longer-lived than that it held in Japanese.

In fact, AP Chinese was introduced three years ago, and according to College Board it has now surpassed AP German as the third most tested AP language. Offering an AP Chinese test not only encourages students to learn Chinese continually throughout high school, it also serves as an extra incentive for individuals seeking college credit.

It would be a shame to have learned a language starting from preschool years only to have to stop in college because that language was not offered. College is supposed to provide richer learning opportunities and expand on individuals’ interests – including interests in language. This is especially important because language is best retained through constant exposure. Learning language not only gives insight into cultural backgrounds but also fosters a greater appreciation for diversity.

Although the government is no longer a sufficient source for educational funding, Chinese language programs are now supported by private and public sources, as we can see through the above examples. This offers hope to our own educational crisis with the recent cuts to the East Asian Language and Culture Program (EALC). Given the world’s increasing globalization, the inherent benefit of learning foreign languages is apparent. Knowing this, I predict that if the University continues to not support EALC, someone else will.

Aside from global economic ties, international cooperation is required in efforts towards world issues. An example of one pressing global issue is energy conservation. As each year passes, the global population increases but available resources decrease. Given the scope of the environmental and energy issues, they cannot be solved by having everyone in the United States switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs. While there isn’t any quick or easy method to approach this issue, one inevitable way to begin is to foster linguistic and cultural understanding with other countries and work together towards a global solution. And the first step in this process may just be learning to say “Ni hao.”

[1] Goldwein, Marc. (2007, May 9). Obama Announces Proposed Cuts to Federal Budget. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2009/05/06/DI2009050603115.html.