Contributing Writer Colby Porter, ’20
The choice I faced felt momentous. As just a naive fifth grader, I had to choose French, Spanish or Mandarin Chinese as the foreign language I would study for many years to come. I had already been taking French from a tutor for most of my childhood, which would put me ahead of the class in French, but the challenge and irresistible beauty of the Chinese characters drove me to quit French and throw myself into Chinese language education. Six years and countless hours of studying later, and I am enrolled in the AP Chinese Language and Culture class at my high school.
This opportunity I have to study Chinese in school puts me in the small minority of students who have access to language education outside of the romance languages. According to the 2017 National K-12 Foreign Language Enrollment survey, despite being the most commonly taught non-romance language, only around 6 percent of high schools offer Chinese language education. This is compared to 21 percent of high schools offering French and 46 percent of high schools offering Spanish.
Put simply, there are too few students learning Chinese. As the Chinese Communist Party celebrates 70 years of rule, Chinese influence continues to grow. For example, despite being halfway across the world, China is perennially among the top three trading partners of the United States, even with the ongoing trade war. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, as of 2015, this trade with China directly supports approximately 911,000 jobs, and for many of these workers, knowledge of the Chinese language is either helpful or essential for their business. As more companies have operations in China, having workers who are educated in Chinese language and culture is essential to success.
Not only does learning Chinese help students find success in the business world, it also provides a huge advantage to learners due to its beneficial effects on cognition. There have been many studies that show learning a second language is always beneficial to brain function, but Chinese in particular, when compared to romance languages, provides significant benefits. This is due to the Chinese character writing and tone systems. In Chinese, there is no alphabet, instead, thousands of characters are used to convey meaning. According to the UK’s Wellcome Trust, reading and writing these characters, since they are more complex than an alphabet and are artistic in nature, provides increased stimulation to both the right and left sides of the brain. This is compared to the primarily right brain function used in English literacy. With respect to the tonal system, the increased listening skills needed to distinguish the four tones from each other stimulate better musical skills. In a world where creativity is the number one trait valued by employers, learning a language that stimulates creativity can be an important leg up in the job market.
With clear benefits for students that are invaluable for later success in life, why do so few schools offer Chinese? One possible answer lies in the perceived difficulty of Chinese. Chinese is known to be a difficult language to learn, taking 2,200 hours to become proficient in, compared to just 600 for Spanish, according to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute. But, many people’s view of the difficulty of Chinese is inflated even beyond these figures, despite the fact that many aspects of Chinese are not any more difficult than other foreign languages. In fact, Chinese pronunciation and grammar are very simple, especially when compared to English. Learning thousands of completely different characters would be extremely difficult, but Chinese characters actually follow a system of radicals which make memorization easier. In addition, many modern Chinese learners decide to forgo learning to handwrite Chinese, and instead only type Chinese which is much easier because it only requires character recognition rather than recall.
Learning Chinese is still seen as an unnecessary challenge among many Americans. They ask, “If learning English is mandatory in China, why should I learn Chinese?” The answer lies in the increased job opportunities in the United States and the cognitive benefits for learners. Despite recent increases in Chinese language education, there are still too few learners of the Chinese language. There needs to be a conscious increase in Chinese language education, especially in primary and secondary schools when language acquisition is easiest. If the United States wants to build a strong relationship with China, how can we do so when we do not speak their language?