top of page

Learning Chinese on rise in US

Updated: Jun 25, 2020

In 2015, a rather unusual picture appeared on the cover of the widely read Economist under the headline "America's new aristocracy".

The picture featured what appears to be a white family of four: the mother wearing expensive clothing and accessories, with an iPhone headset in her ears; the father wearing a jacket proudly displaying the letter Y, signifying a Yale graduate; the son wearing a Stanford baseball cap; and the daughter holding a Chinese textbook in her hands.

While interpretations might differ as to what constitutes America's new aristocracy, there is no mistaking that all four images in the picture indicate prestige and status symbols in contemporary American society. What is noteworthy is the Chinese language now being perceived as a symbol of prestige.

What I have witnessed over the past 30 years is the steady rise of Chinese as a preferred foreign language to learn in US schools and society at large.

When I was the director of language at the China Institute in New York City in the late 1990s, we had to go to a number of prestigious private schools to plead with the principals to start a Chinese program in their schools. We succeeded in some cases, but failed in others. Now, 20 years later, almost all the private schools in Manhattan have Chinese classes. For a school to have a Chinese program has become a major attraction for parents and their children.

Due to the lack of funding and shift of focus to math, science and reading, a lot of schools in the United States have been paring down their foreign language offerings.

A few years ago, The New York Times ran a report under the headline "Foreign Languages Fade in Class-Except Chinese" that said: "Thousands of public schools stopped teaching foreign languages in the last decade-dismal news for a nation that needs more linguists to conduct its global business and diplomacy. But another contrary trend has educators and policymakers abuzz: a rush by schools in all parts of America to offer instruction in Chinese."

I bear full witness to this rush or fervor. These figures for the increase of Chinese classes in schools at various levels in the past decade speak volumes: a 200 percent increase in elementary schools (1997-2008), a rise of 300 percent in secondary schools (1997-2008) and an 81 percent increase in colleges and universities (1998-2006).

During my tenure as the Chinese language supervisor at United Nations Headquarters from 2002 to 2017, our registered students, who are staff members and diplomats, grew from 70 to 200 per semester. The upsurge of interest in learning Chinese can only be attributed to the rise of China on the world stage and its ever-growing importance in the global economic arena.

Language and culture are intertwined such that language embodies culture and culture is ingrained in language. To truly understand a culture, one has to learn its language. For this very reason, we need to bring the teaching and learning of Chinese to a new level in terms of both scale and sophistication if we aspire to present the Chinese culture to the world.

I quoted American financial investor Jim Rogers in Beginners Chinese, a textbook I wrote in 1997: "If the 19th century belonged to Britain, and the 20th century to the United States, then the 21st century will surely belong to China. My advice: Make sure your kids learn Chinese."

We are now in the 21st century, and I cannot say whether the current century already belongs to China or will belong to China exclusively, but I can certainly say to the speakers of other languages that making sure your kids-or even better, you yourself-learn Chinese is a wise decision.

The author is coordinator of the UN China Study Programme. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

43 views0 comments
bottom of page