Before I last visited China twenty years ago, I spent some time with a friend of mine who taught Chinese. With his help, I learned a few key phrases such as Ni Hao which means hello, Xie Xie which means thank you, and Zai Jian which means good bye. I probably learned two or three more phrases but I can\’t recall them at this time. In China at that time, the use of English was extremely limited and consequently my use of Chinese helped slightly.
For this visit, my knowledge of Chinese has not increased. I have Chinese business cards but no additional sophistication in conducting even a minimal conversation in Chinese unless that conversation is literally a hello/good bye conversation. But over these years China has changed dramatically in its English language ability and its bilingualism. Especially the age 25 or under generation together with many university faculty and administrators have solid English skills. It was easy to have many fruitful conversations during this trip but my foreign language skills were not a contributing factor.
Many of us feel that English is the most important language on the planet and there is no question that English is critical. But this is a changing world. China is an economic super power and a one way, one language relationship just won\’t work long term.
Chinese schools teach English starting in kindergarten. The Chinese college students – both undergraduate and graduate – that I spoke with, had strong English language skills and conversed in complex conversations with ease. So did the faculty and administrators. Many even had significant study abroad experience in the United States and had first hand knowledge of our society.
We need to change. There needs to be a greater priority on languages, especially those languages that are most important in today\’s world and for many years to come. Such language skills will prepare our students for 21st century job opportunities. Chinese is not an easy language to learn but that is no excuse. Language beginning in elementary school is critical. And if we agree with President Obama on the importance of the US China relationship, study of the Chinese language will be an important part of such a program nationwide.
If the United States is to maintain its leadership position, more sophisticated foreign language skills are an important part of making that happen.