Nimen hao. Wode mingzi jiao He Xueli. Wo shi yanjiu zhongguo lishi de jiaoshou.
Hello–My name is Shelley Hawks. I teach Chinese history at the college level, most recently as a visiting lecturer at UMass, Boston. I am the parent of two sons who have taken Chinese language classes since they were young, first at a weekend school with practically all Chinese students, and then later with a tutor. Several years ago, our family enjoyed hosting a principal and a teacher from China as part of an exchange program. Through these experiences, one of my sons really took to foreign languages, and is taking French and Chinese at his current school. He plans to continue taking foreign languages in college, possibly as his major. He wrote his college application essay about not wanting to go to Chinese language school on Saturdays at the time, but then recognizing the importance of taking Chinese as he matured. I bribed my sons into taking Chinese when they were young, by promising to take them to the Beijing Olympics. Yet, in my son’s college applications essay, he reported that his epiphany moment was not at the Olympics, but rather, when we went to a remote Chinese village during the same trip in 2008. Our tour guide had arranged for us to have lunch at a very humble home of farmers in that village. They served us wonderful homemade dumplings. My son was able to converse with them, and they were overjoyed.
I began taking Chinese the year after college. (I wish that I had started earlier. I took French in high school and college). I can read Chinese well enough to use it for research purposes. Nowadays, I am striving to improve the speed of my reading and move from proficiency to fluency in speaking. The best way to do this will be to spend some extended time in China or Taiwan. I offer these details as background for the main message of my talk: The organizers and I want to emphasize how important, indeed critical, we feel it is for American schools at the pre-college level to educate students with the goal of foreign language fluency. Consider this thought experiment: If we look out fifty years to the time when today’s babies will be adults, it is clear that this future cohort of Americans will need to be equipped with a much deeper knowledge of Chinese culture to operate effectively. A much larger percentage of American students will need to study Chinese language at an earlier age, so that they can function skillfully in a world that will be much more China-focused. Learning Chinese requires a considerable investment in time and energy. For Americans, Chinese is more difficult to learn than European languages, so it is best to start early in life, preferably in kindergarten or first grade. Introducing exchange programs into our middle schools or high schools can incentivize students and teachers to stay committed to the study of foreign languages and instill in them a deep understanding of foreign countries.
Time-out for a joke:
What do you call someone who knows two languages? (bilingual)
What do you call someone who knows three languages? (trilingual)
What do you call someone who knows one language? (American!)
Why is this so? Because English is the universal language of science. Americans are accustomed to thinking that only English is truly necessary, since most foreigners who come to America speak English already. But, will our world be so English-centered in 50 years? In all likelihood—not. Increasingly, Americans will need to understand Chinese and read Chinese publications to keep up with business and scientific trends. There will be significant opportunities for enterprising Americans to find jobs in China or even pursue a university education in China, but they’ll need to be able to speak and read Chinese first.
Now let’s look at the numbers that many of us feel are predictive of a world more focused on China. China’s economic strength is projected to become the leading economy over the next decade. Their scientific and technological sector, especially their computer industry and their space programs, are fast becoming rivals to the US.
Moving beyond the issue of national competitiveness, what I find an even more compelling argument for deepening US engagement with China is the environmental crisis that the world is facing, because of man-made climate changes and rapid deforestation. US and China are the leading emitters of carbon dioxide. The problem of greenhouse gas emissions will not be solved, unless US and China rein in their current practices and achieve a new level of cooperation and transparency. There are no national borders, when it comes to air and water pollution. Scientists tell us that we must act now to develop frameworks for cooperation and enforcement, so that a strategy for stopping the damage can be worked out. The next generation must possess the communication skills to mobilize a consensus around solutions to these environmental issues in both China and the US.
Finally, brain studies suggest that there are significant cognitive benefits associated with learning a foreign language. For Americans, learning Chinese can open up an entirely new world of understanding and broaden the student’s capacity for flexible thinking and empathy. Furthermore, the cognitive stimulation in the prefrontal lobe acquired when learning a foreign language is linked to academic achievement in math and reading. According to the College Board, SAT test-takers who took Chinese in high school (only 3% of America’s college-bound seniors) scored 615, quite a bit higher than any other group of foreign language learners. While we cannot say for sure that these students scored high in math because of taking Chinese, we can say that taking Chinese did not distract them or prevent from excelling in Math.
As we look ahead fifty years there is room for optimism. China’s rise should not make us predict gloom and doom. However, it should make us want to get our act together! America should not simply adopt a wait-and-see approach. We should adopt a strategic plan to build a foundation of knowledge about China for the next generation of Americans. To remain dynamic and innovative, America must look outward and train our youth to become fluent foreign language speakers. It is critical that we establish foreign language programs in our elementary schools, because the benefit of starting early has been definitively shown in scientific studies. If we invest in foreign language learning in our pre-college curriculum, then the next generation of Americans can achieve fluency in a strategic language AND train in their area of professional expertise, whether medicine, engineering, law, or teaching. We must evolve with the times and rise to the challenge of a future that requires Americans to be bilingual or trilingual.
View the panel discussions from Global Education Strategies: U.S. China School Exchanges on Vimeo:
Opening Remarks by Hardin Coleman, Dean, BU School of Education [video]
Keynote Speech: “Why Have U.S.-China School Exchanges?” [video]
Panel 2: “How Are U.S.-China Exchanges Run?” [video]
Remarks by S. Paul Reville, Secretary of Education, Commonwealth of Massachusetts [video]