Many of us toss around phrases in exotic tongues: “oui, monsieur,” or “que tal?” But, when is the last time you heard someone in a Western culture casually utter the word, “xing”? It’s Mandarin Chinese for “wake up!”
Waking up, in this context, means recognizing that we need to get on the ball with teaching various Chinese languages to our children, with Mandarin, the most common, being our top priority. Doing so will make the U.S. more prosperous and more competitive in the global marketplace over the next few decades.
You may have seen the episode of the great comedy series The Office in which Michael Scott lets an article on China’s forthcoming dominance throw him for a loop. Yes, people talk about China all the time. “China’s taking over.” “Everything is made in China.” However, in the field of language education, we need to be a lot more focused than this. And we need to take action. While the rest of the world is fascinated by China and its business practices, we need to develop a sound and very real strategy for being able to speak to the large nation, literally!
Yes, China Is a Global Business Power
If China’s much-talked-about economic gains had been a flash in the pan, we’d find much less reason to teach our children Chinese. But their economic growth isn’t going anywhere, and it will probably only expand.
Let’s look at a few items that are indisputable—some cold, hard numbers. China’s buying power increased by roughly half a trillion dollars in 2015.
The overall growth in China’s economy is projected to turn out to be 6.5% in 2016.
Currency deflation is a big reason for this, and consumer spending has been steadily high for years.
This has laid the foundation for international expansion, and there’s plenty of that on the way. Chinese businesses, with the help of the nation’s government, are as enthusiastic as ever about either buying businesses, expanding their companies, or buying properties in the U.S., whether to gain rental income or to later sell.
Chinese companies have recently purchased both the Waldorf Astoria Building and the General Motors Building, both in Manhattan. Many wealthy individuals are also buying homes and properties in the U.S., so much so that American real estate companies are setting up companies in Shanghai to find and serve new clients.
How useful would fluency in one of the major Chinese dialects be in this situation?
It’s a Global Language Race
This brings up another fascinating component of China’s expansion. They have put a lot of thought and effort into it. China is not just putting up glass high rises all over the place. Its government, on the contrary, wants to set up true partnerships with nations around the world. It wants to blend, and this means compatible languages. While many people in China (as is the case with many nations worldwide) have found it crucial to learn English, China would now like people in various countries to learn Chinese.
One place where China is developing a major presence is the continent of Africa, which is rich in natural resources like steel, aluminum, and nickel, making it attractive for Chinese investors and its government alike. Not only is China investing financially in African countries in ways similar to those described above, but they are investing in teaching Mandarin Chinese in countries such as Madagascar, Tanzania, and South Africa. Cobus van Staden, of the website Africa-china.info, tells us that there are now more than forty schools in South Africa alone teaching Mandarin Chinese education.
The University of Zambia includes a Confucius Center, one of the 25 institutes that teach Chinese and do some advising for people interested in doing business in China or with Chinese firms.
In fact, China is now being touted as an excellent place to start a business. Andong Peng writes, “China continues to be an economy that sees tremendous entrepreneurialism and start-ups, not only in technology but across the retail-facing industries.” One reason for this is that many large companies invest in start-ups. This shows us another incentive for Western students to learn Chinese. While moving across the world to start a business may sound extreme, it’s actually not uncommon.
China has also made investments in spreading their language to South America. The Confucius Institute has centers in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and other South American nations. Now, these are not little buildings in a shopping center—these institutes have an average of 70,000 students.
In addition, Chinese language teachers have been sent to schools throughout Chile to teach Chinese. This, of course, means that the number of Chinese speakers and writers throughout Latin America is skyrocketing, and the future will be one in which many Spanish-speaking adults will know a Chinese language.
Because of this, America needs to keep up. It isn’t just a matter of Mandarin or other Chinese tongues being advantageous but of other parts of the world outpacing us.
You may recall that President Obama finds it very important for U.S. students to learn Chinese, as evidenced by the One Million Strong initiative, a cooperation with President Xi of China. This initiative aims to have a million U.S. students beginning their Mandarin education. This includes a coalition called the “100K Strong States” where governors have pledged to promote Mandarin education in their states.
We should all hope that this initiative bears fruit, but it isn’t the only thing we should do. All of us involved in language education must have strategies for increasing Chinese education. This should include training and hiring the proper teachers where applicable, promoting Mandarin instruction, and increasing access to language literacy.
China has shown great interest in teaching its language to the children of various nations. But one of these includes the U.S. We need to meet this enthusiasm, add to it, and mount our own various programs to increase Mandarin Chinese education for our students.