Approximately 24,000 of about 54 million U.S. elementary and secondary school children are now studying Chinese. Yes, Chinese language instruction in American schools is "booming." Of the 27,000-some middle and high schools in America offering a foreign language, the proportion offering Chinese "exploded" from 1 percent to 4 percent between 1997 and 2008. From The New York Times' special report on Chinese language education: "Jackson High School outside Cleveland, OH has seen its Chinese program go from 20 students to 80 in just three years. Part of the reason the school could even offer the language was that it procured a free Chinese teacher. Not a teacher with free time, but a teacher who worked for free."
As The Times notes, the teacher is actually not free but is paid for by an outreach program sponsored by China that places language teachers all over the United States. Minnesota, a state on the cutting edge of Chinese language education in America, operates a Confucius Institute out of the U of M that funnels money to grade and secondary schools looking to start Chinese language programs. A chunk of that institute's funding comes from China's Chinese Council on Language International (Hanban). Yes, China is paying for us to learn their language, hardly a roll-the-tanks-into-town and subjugate-the-masses scenario envisioned by the-coming-war wingnuts.
It's not a threatening scenario at all. While there are many schools across the U.S. that want to begin teaching Chinese, it is often impossible to convince schools boards to approve funding. So, essentially, China is, in some cases, paying to educate our children because, as the richest nation on earth, we so often refuse to do so ourselves.
That doesn't mean schools can start Chinese programs with ease. Natasha Pierce, a teacher who heads up Madison, Wisconsin's Memorial High School Chinese studies program says that finding a Chinese speaker isn't the problem: "There are a lot of native Chinese speakers-but a huge shortage of Chinese speakers who understand how to teach Chinese." As Pierce points out, students do not learn much from a native speaker who has no teaching background.
Pierce recently let me visit her year three and year four Memorial High School Chinese class, which is Madison's only.
In a classroom shared with the German program (ironic, as Chinese is now passing German to become the third-most tested AP language), I spoke with Pierce's students about their perspectives on China. Beyond being shocked at their proficiency (the entirety of the class-hour was conducted in Chinese), it was moving and a testament to how much more these teens are learning than just the language. In fact, America's future relationship with China may benefit exponentially from the cultural understanding these Chinese language students are taking with them.
"China's going to be the next superpower," said one student, after which everyone laughed, loudly. But he's not joking and the rest of this class understands this.
One wants to major in business and thinks it will help her in the future. Another, wise beyond her years, said, "I take it not only for the language and the culture but because of the number of people you can communicate with in Chinese. I also take Spanish. Taking those together that allows me to speak with billions of people."
Another student said, "It's dumb to blame people in China. I'm sure they're people in China who disagree with what's going on with their government."
Some in the class left me with longer thoughts on our nation's (or at least their personal) future relationship with China. These thoughts follow unedited and are wildly encouraging, as they are held by 16- and 17-year-olds:
• "In the coming years I hope to see the relationship between China and America improve. I don't think it can, however, unless we strive to have our younger generations learn about each other's culture. If we begin learning something foreign earlier in life, such as culture or language, it is easier to assimilate into our own way of life. I think simply growing up to have a better respect and regard for each other would greatly improve the political relations of future generations."
• "China will be at least a full equal of the US. It will happen, it cannot be avoided, and we must prepare for it, instead of wasting time and effort trying to stop it. A US attempt to stop China's rise would only increase motivation and efforts to surpass the US in all areas. A welcoming approach leaves the best chance of future equality."
• "I believe that in my future China and the US will continue to be wary of each other, but at the same time, will (I hope!) work together more closely. I do not believe that these two world powers will ever be as close as, say, America and England, because of the preconceptions the citizens of both countries have of the other. However, I think it would be unwise for the two countries to turn against each other, because China could make a formidable enemy to the US, and of course vice versa."
• "In the future, I see China as becoming an economic 'superpower' and I think that there will be a lot more job opportunities concerning the US and China (think business) and knowing Chinese will be incredibly useful in the future. Instead of most people learning Spanish as their second language, most people will be learning Chinese as their second language in the future. I would suggest that the future generations of Americans learn Chinese as a second language."
• "I think that government officials need to have a deeper understanding of the culture of the other country, especially when it comes down to making foreign policy decisions. I feel that often conflict arises between two nations due to culture-based misunderstandings. I have found that in my studying of Chinese language and culture, I have come to understand the influence one's culture has on their actions while some would otherwise make generalizations."
Red Dawn and RAND attitudes are not the only hindrances these students face. As The New York Times "Room for Debate" blog demonstrated, there is a lack of optimism even amongst proponents of education, and certainly less amongst the general population, for Chinese language programs. There are utilitarian roadblocks aplenty, from the fact that the Chinese already learn English (so why bother), to the idea that it's just a fad, like Japanese, (so why bother). Learn Chinese or learn math and science seems to be the choice offered, as though the ability to do both is impossible.
It is not realistic to expect U.S. schools to begin turning out fluent Chinese speakers. In linguistic terms, Chinese may be easier to learn than Spanish or French; but in practical ways, it is much, much more difficult. But UN-translator-level pronunciation and vocabulary should not the only goals of such programs. It is valuable to breed cross-cultural understanding. It's valuable to create a generation that regards China as neither a Shangri-La of dragons, mysticism and sideways vaginas nor as a red menace poised to invade the U.S. with its billions-strong horde army of indistinguishable and interchangeable multitudes. American educators, and parents that care about how their children will live in a post-U!S!A! world, have a unique opportunity right now to expose children to more than just a language; they have a window to craft a future with a better chance of peaceful coexistence, a world where Red Dawn remains a fictional remake trotted out by manipulative profiteers every 20 years to sucker reactionary fools who, by refusing to see the future, have always been dragged kicking and screaming by the rest into a more progressive era.
In a Red Dawn world, our high school students must be armed to kill the Chinese. Arm them with some Chinese and maybe they won't have to… or want to.
Abe Sauer won't be hitting this one in the theaters.