[lg policy] Will Americans Really Learn Chinese?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Feb 8 16:02:06 UTC 2010

Will Americans Really Learn Chinese?

Brendan Hoffman for the New York Times

The Times recently reported on the rise of Chinese-language
instruction in American schools, a push supported by aid from the
Chinese government. While language fads come and go — there was
Russian during the cold war, then Japanese in the 1980’s, then Arabic
after 9/11 — thousands of public schools have stopped teaching foreign
languages in the last decade. Is the boom in Chinese language
education going to last?

There’s a long tradition of bemoaning Americans’ inadequacy in foreign
languages. But what specifically should the nation do to improve its
citizens’ knowledge of other languages? What are the impediments?

Susan Jacoby, author of “The Age of American Unreason”
Ingrid Pufahl, Center for Applied Linguistics
Marcelo and Carola Suárez-Orozco, N.Y.U.’s immigration studies program
Norman Matloff, University of California, Davis
Hongyin Tao, professor of Chinese language and linguistics
Bruce Fuller, U.C. Berkeley professor of education and public policy


Parochial, and Proud of It
 Susan Jacoby is the author of nine books, most recently “The Age of
American Unreason.”

The disproportionate media attention devoted to a mini-blip increase
in Chinese classes in U.S. schools only underlines the parochialism
and mediocre education standards that undercut America’s attempts not
only to compete in the global economy but to lay claim to any cultural
sophistication beyond the world of video.

Our problems are rooted in the much larger dumbing down of the
American concept of what it means to be an educated person.
Between 1997 and 2008, according to a survey by the Center for Applied
Linguistics, the proportion of elementary and high schools offering
some sort of instruction in Chinese rose from 1 to 4 percent. This is
a meaningless statistic. Many of the schools rely on a Chinese
government program that subsidizes salaries for teacher-ambassadors it
sends to the lowly, economically deprived U.S. The fad for Chinese
will pass — born, like the promotion of Russian studies during the
cold war, out of the idea that we must know the language of our chief

Americans have never been particularly interested in learning other
languages and are even less interested today (with the exception of
conversational Spanish).

Read more…

Only 9 percent of Americans, compared with 44 percent of Europeans,
speak a foreign language. The Web has only reinforced the smug
American conviction that everyone worth talking to in the world speaks

The only real expansion of foreign language programs in both secondary
schools and universities came with the 1958 National Defense Education
Act — a direct response to the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik.
The N.D.E.A. promoted not only the teaching of Russian but of all
foreign languages. Our government now spends 25 percent less, adjusted
for inflation, than it did 40 years ago on foreign language training
at the university level. Even more disturbing, our pinched budget for
foreign language teaching includes an additional 20 percent for Arabic
and Middle East studies appropriated after the 9/11 terrorist attacks
— meaning that the teaching of other languages has declined
dramatically. Richard D. Brecht, executive director of the Center for
Advanced Study of Langauge at the University of Maryland, told me in
2003 that “America has no long-term strategy to build the expertise we
need to understand other cultures. We’ve seen, in the worst possible
way because of our lack of Arabists, where this short-term thinking

The situation is, needless to say, worse today as the recession has
squeezed education at every level. But the utilitarian problem — we
don’t have enough diplomats, spies and business people who know other
languages — is rooted in the much larger dumbing down of the American
concept of what it means to be an educated person. Most states have
dropped foreign language requirements for high school graduation, and
most students complete college without studying any foreign language.
We’re a Know-As-Little-As-You Can-Get-Away-With Nation and proud of


How Europe Does It
Ingrid Pufahl, a native of Germany, is a research associate at the
Center for Applied Linguistics. She is co-author of “Foreign Language
Teaching in U.S. Schools: Results of a National Survey” and “Foreign
Language Teaching: What the United States Can Learn From Other

For decades, U.S. policy makers, business leaders, educators, and
research organizations have decried our students’ lack of foreign
language skills and called for better language instruction. Yet,
despite these calls for action, we have fallen further behind the rest
of the world in preparing our students to communicate effectively in
languages other than English.

Many U.S. school programs offer general exposure to languages but
don’t expect proficiency.
I believe the main reason for this disparity is that foreign languages
are treated by our public education system as less important than
math, science and English. In contrast, E.U. governments expect their
citizens to become fluent in at least two languages plus their native
tongue. This different attitude toward languages has wide-ranging
implications that contribute to successful language learning abroad.
Foreign languages are core academic subjects for all students,
including special-needs students and vocational students.

In contrast, foreign language instruction in the U.S. is frequently
considered a “luxury,” a subject taught to college-bound students,
more frequently in affluent than poor school districts, and readily
cut when math or reading test scores drop or budget cuts loom.

Read more…

Language instruction starts early and lasts for many years. While
China and the E.U. are teaching more languages to even younger
children, fewer U.S. elementary and middle schools are now offering
foreign languages than they did 10 years ago. As a result, students
abroad study languages for 9 to 12 years, whereas most Americans don’t
start language study until they enter high school and simply have too
little time to become proficient.

Schools abroad offer intensive language programs, frequently teaching
academic subjects in the foreign language. Thus, Finnish students, who
spend about 16 hours per week on foreign languages, nevertheless top
the charts in international math, science and reading achievement

In contrast, many U.S. elementary and middle school language programs
only offer general exposure to languages but don’t expect proficiency.
The only programs here that achieve high proficiency levels are
immersion programs, where at least 50 percent of the school day is
taught in a second language.

Finally, European policy makers, educators and the general public
realize that the benefits of language study extend well beyond the
ability to communicate in another language. A recent E.U. meta-study
presented scientific evidence that multilingualism contributes to
creativity by enhancing mental flexibility, problem solving
capability, language awareness, learning capacity and interpersonal

Education policy in the U.S. does not reflect a similar understanding
and thus does not emphasize language learning as an integral part of
an individual’s overall cognitive development. Instead, languages
achieve popularity according to world events and contexts — Russian in
the 1980s, Japanese in the 1990s, Chinese today — but U.S. education
lacks a cohesive approach to language instruction as part of each
citizen’s right to a basic education.


Dedicated to Monolingualism
 Marcelo and  Carola Suárez-Orozco are members of the Institute for
Advanced Study at Princeton University and co-directors of Immigration
Studies at New York University. They are co-authors of “Learning a New
Land: Immigrant Students in American Society” and the forthcoming
“Educating the Whole Child for the Whole World: The Ross Schools and
Education for the Global Era.”

Is the new interest in learning Chinese another language fad? We
certainly hope not. But the U.S. record with foreign language
instruction is underwhelming.

The immigrant languages of yesteryear like German, Italian and
Japanese were obliterated.
When it comes to languages, as a nation we are of two minds: while
urging middle class kids to pursue study abroad with the understanding
that it will better prepare them linguistically and culturally for the
new global marketplace, concurrently we undermine the maintenance of
the great linguistic diversity of our newest Americans — the millions
of immigrant children that enrich our national linguistic reservoir.

This has deep roots in American history. Benjamin Franklin’s excessive
anxieties about German (and Germans) in Pennsylvania and Teddy
Roosevelt’s chilling “We have room for but one language here, and that
is the English language” have echoed through the ages.

Read more…

For over a century the United States has maintained an implacable
regime of compulsive monolingualism — as famously quipped by a
sociologist, the “U.S. is a cemetery for languages.” The great
immigrant languages of yesteryear such as German, Italian and Japanese
now R.I.P. in American soil.

Developing English skills, of course, is as always, essential for
doing well in the educational system, in the workplace, and above all,
for full democratic engagement in society. But more than ever before,
in an increasingly interconnected world, the ability to negotiate in
more than one language represents an extraordinary cognitive and
meta-cognitive advantage for communicating in diverse neighborhoods,
for working in various sectors of the economy, and for success in
global businesses.

The archeology of the English-only logic that has reigned in the U.S.
for generations emerged in the context of nation-building and the need
for social cohesion, as millions of immigrants speaking multiple
languages were turned into loyal citizens, workers and consumers in
the new nation. As the center of global power slowly but surely moves
East and South with the “BRIC” countries (Brazil, India and China),
the advantages (economic, diplomatic and for security) of a
multilingual citizenry are becoming increasingly obvious, as Doris
Sommer of Harvard and others have shown.

If Teddy Roosevelt turns out to be right, our kids will be left in the
dust in the new global race to the top. And when the top science- and
math-scoring multilingual kids from Finland, Korea and Netherlands get
there they will hear the sweet sound of success in many languages.


Not Just a Passing Fad
 Norman Matloff is a professor of computer science at the University
of California, Davis. He is the developer of a Chinese language
software tool.

Americans have a bad rap in linguistics. Europeans relish speaking
multiple languages, we’re told, while Americans simply aren’t

Unfair comparison. Most Europeans live within a couple hundred miles
of another nation, so they speak multiple languages out of necessity.

The comparison to Europeans is unfair: they speak multiple languages
out of necessity.
In U.S. regions with similar necessity, interest in language learning
is brisk. Walk into any chain bookstore in California and you will see
tons of books on learning Spanish. Indeed, in many stores, Spanish has
its own section, separate from Foreign Languages.

It is thus only natural that, with China’s dramatic rise in economic
and political presence, Americans are now interested in learning
Chinese. Chinese instruction is no passing fad, what with 1.3 billion
people to talk to.

But CAN Americans learn Chinese? All those characters to memorize! And
then the curveball–those dreaded, elusive tones! Much better
instructional methods are needed.

Read more…

American kids may not have the patience for the tian yazi (“stuff the
duck”) rote-memory methods those teachers from China may use. An
increase in active learning is key, say based on singing and learning
movie scripts. And Perapera-kun, an open-source Firefox browser
plug-in, is a great way to increase reading comprehension for
immediate learners.

One problem is that enrollment in U.S. Chinese courses often includes
a number of native speakers, children of immigrants. A startling
illustration of this is that the SAT Subject Test in Chinese has a
mean score of 764, far higher than French at 621 and Chemistry at 629.
Teaching “mixed” classes doesn’t serve either group well. Some rich
schools solve the problem by offering separate courses for
Chinese-American kids who can speak the language but can’t write it,
but this option may be infeasible for many schools.

In spite of difficulties, though, Chinese courses are here to stay,
and those who stick with the language will find it very rewarding.


Start Early, to Learn Tones and Characters
Hongyin Tao, professor of Chinese language and linguistics, is
coordinator of the Chinese language program at UCLA. He is executive
editor of the journal, Chinese Language and Discourse, and of the book
series, “Studies in Chinese Language and Discourse.”

As long as China is on the rise, one can expect that interest in the
Chinese language will grow.

We have heard claims that Chinese is among the world’s most difficult
languages, if not the most difficult language, to learn. This is bit
of an overgeneralization, as it really depends on who the learner is
and what aspects of the language we are talking about.

Princeton University Art Museum

The Chinese Language, Ever Evolving: Simplified vs. Traditional
CharactersChinese is not necessarily harder than, say Korean, for
English (non-heritage) speakers. After all, the grammar is rather
simple: There is no need to conjugate verbs (for example, the verb “to
go” in Chinese is always qu 去, no matter it is ‘we go’, ‘they went’,
or ‘she goes’). Word order, unlike, say, Korean, is very similar to
English (e.g., wo ‘I’ + qu ‘go’ + nali ‘there’). Nouns do not have to
change to reflect differences in number (singular vs. plural) or
gender (as in Spanish and French).

The most difficult part in learning to speak Chinese may be in
figuring out the tones. Chinese is a tonal language, where pretty much
every word must be uttered with a particular tonal contour, and this
has to be memorized.

Read more…

With different tonal contours imposed, ostensibly identical sound
combos, which tend to be short, can render completely different words
and meanings (e.g. gou with a falling-raising tone (as in a V shape)
means ‘dog’, whereas gou in a sharp falling tone (as in a \ shape)
means ‘enough’). To the novice learner, speaking Chinese is akin to
singing. Worse yet, tones in isolated words may need to be adjusted
when put together in an utterance.

The character writing system is another major hurdle for English
learners, because the system is non-phonetic and non-alphabetical.
There are thousands of them and many look extremely complicated.

Yet, the characters are not totally random. Once you have learned how
to decompose the characters, you will realize that many share the same
or similar components (called ‘radicals’), and they may tell you
something about the sound or the meaning of the character. Once you
have learned 400-500 characters, chances are that you have encountered
some of the most commonly used components, and you can use them as
building blocks for comprehending and producing other characters.

The younger the leaner is, the easier to master a language. This is
also true for Chinese learning. Not surprisingly, then, we have seen a
lot of success stories from young children in American schools. Adults
will always have a hard time learning a new language, no matter how
hard one tries, especially when the language in question shares very
little with your native language in terms of history and culture.

What all this means is that for Chinese language education in the
U.S., it is always a good idea to start the learning process as early
as possible; and between the spoken and the written language, try to
focus on the spoken language first and worry about the written part
later. For the writing system, English-speaking learners need to be a
little patient, knowing that after some initial hardship, a break-out
moment will eventually arrive, and after that, characters may no
longer be as daunting as they first seem.


We’d Better Learn It
 Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at the
University of California, Berkeley, served as a sociologist at the
World Bank. He is the author of “Standardized Childhood.”

Imagine that your monthly mortgage bill arrives, unremarkable except
that it’s suddenly written in Mandarin. Then, your bank sends over a
Chinese translator to explain that you are falling deeper into debt.
Mind-boggling? Well, this is America’s contemporary predicament as the
Chinese finance a growing share of our national debt. Beijing holds
$1.8 trillion in U.S. bonds and other instruments of borrowing. We are
fused at the hip with the Chinese, economically speaking.

We are economically fused at the hip with the Chinese, so we must bear down.
So, we better get to know them. They certainly want to know us,
sending over hundreds of teachers to spark our children’s interest in
Mandarin and East Asian ways. Affluent urban parents get it. (One San
Francisco colleague felt compelled to apologize that his 6-year-old
daughter had access only to a dual-language Spanish-speaking school,
rather than to the Mandarin immersion he wanted.) But unlike Europe,
the U.S. has no coherent strategy for making our society bilingual,
unless you count our growing Babel of texting as a second tongue.

We are pathetically slow in realizing that East Asia will soon
dominate the global economy. We believe, as did the last living
Romans, that the American empire will reign forever. So, we fail to
grasp the hard work, collective spirit and enormous investment in
public institutions advanced by Chinese


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