[EDLING:1213] U.S. students need more math, not Mandarin

Francis M Hult fmhult at DOLPHIN.UPENN.EDU
Wed Feb 1 15:16:01 UTC 2006

International Herald Tribune

U.S. students need more math, not Mandarin 

By Andy Mukherjee Bloomberg News


Fear of China is making Americans so nervous that some of them have stopped thinking 
rationally. At least that is the impression I draw from the whole craze in the United 
States about learning Chinese.

The Associated Press this month reported that the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee 
was considering a proposal to allocate $1.3 billion to public schools for teaching Chinese 
language and culture.

The AP story cited a survey in which 2,400 U.S. high schools said they would consider 
teaching Mandarin. Only 240 opted for Italian and 175 chose Japanese.

"Chinese is a language we, as a nation, can no longer afford to ignore," a delegation of 
U.S. business and education leaders said this month in its report after touring China.

The group, noting that U.S. schools have fewer than 50,000 students learning Mandarin 
while more than 110 million Chinese are learning English in China, recommended ramping up 
"national capacity" so that 5 percent of U.S. high school students are studying Chinese by 

It is no doubt valuable to learn Mandarin, or any other language, for cultural enrichment. 
If, however, the language is to be drilled into one in 20 high school students, hard 
economic costs and benefits must be considered alongside the intangibles.

Let's ask experts to put a value on the resources that will be required to put 5 percent 
of U.S. high school students in Chinese-language classes by 2015, both in terms of 
teaching expenses and the opportunity cost of the pupils' time.

Let's also ask educators what could possibly be gained from this investment when 110 
million Chinese students, who will comprise the bulk of China's urban middle-class earners 
and consumers from 2015 onwards, are already learning English.

It's important to remember that even if China fulfills Goldman Sachs Group's prophecy and 
overtakes the United States as the world's largest economy by 2050, the average Chinese 
will still be earning less than half as much as the average American, British, Japanese, 
French, German or Canadian citizen.

The Chinese students, mostly rural, who are growing up without learning English at all 
would urbanize and become the next generation of factory workers, making cars, electronics 
and everything else that America will consume.

They won't be the world's buyer of last resort. No one will make an extra effort to speak 
their tongue. This reality was perhaps best captured in a maxim that the author Donald 
DePalma attributes to former Chancellor Willy Brandt of Germany: "If I am selling to you, 
I speak your language. If I am buying, dann muessen Sie Deutsch sprechen."

Roughly translated, If I'm buying from you, you speak my language.

China will embrace English, but on its own terms. Writing in the journal "English Today" 
in April 2004, Hu Xiaoqiong makes a compelling case for native English speakers to accept 
"China English," a communication tool she says is as good as standard English, into the 

Hu gives an example of China English: "You must go to his son's wedding dinner. You must 
give him face." In most Asian societies, face is equated with honor, whereas standard 
English insists that only "to lose face" is idiomatically correct. Hu's point is that if 
the Irish can gain admittance into the inner circle of English speakers in just 50 years 
with their own unique idiom, the Chinese should also be made to feel welcome.

The English language is what economists call a "network" good, something that gains in 
value with more widespread usage. Rule of law is its most beneficial "network 

As English becomes the norm for commerce - and eventually superior courts - in China, the 
business-unfriendly Chinese legal system will start converging toward English common law 
practiced in Hong Kong. When that happens, U.S. companies and banks in China will be 
rewarded handsomely.

"The common law system in which the law is continually reinterpreted by judges ends up 
protecting property rights far more than others and makes it easier to enforce restrictive 
covenants," Frederic Mishkin, an economist at Columbia University, said in a recent paper 
on financial globalization.

The United States can find many other uses for the $1.3 billion the Senate committee wants 
to allocate for Mandarin education. One priority may be to train math teachers to 
calculate the value of 1 æ divided by a half.

Ma Liping describes that particular problem in her 1999 book "Knowing and Teaching 
Elementary Mathematics."

More than half of U.S. math teachers to whom Ma had given the problem got the computation 
wrong. Not only did all the teachers in China get the answer right, 90 percent came up 
with a valid "story" to explain the solution to children so they got the correct figure of 
3 ½.

In a Senate Banking Committee hearing in 2004, Alan Greenspan said the lack of math 
education threatened U.S. competitiveness. The Federal Reserve chairman's concerns were 
validated in a Bloomberg News article last week about the Chartered Financial Analyst 

Chinese students, the article said, had the highest pass rate in the world in last month's 
CFA Level I test, followed by Germany and India. The United States was fourth.

Kindergarten students in Portland, Oregon, are learning that a triangle is san jiao in 
Mandarin, according to the Associated Press. 

They might learn something more useful by playing with an abacus.

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