Should Your Child Be Learning Mandarin?

Reports in the NY Times and elsewhere point to the rise of Chinese language instruction in our schools, against the backdrop of the demise of language learning in general. People justify this rush to Chinese by referring to the growth of the Chinese economy. The US government has declared Chinese a “critical language.” How realistic is this Chinese boom, and will it last? Here is a reality check.

1) Chinese will probably not help your kid get a job.

Chinese is being touted as the language of the future, given the growth of the Chinese economy. Some predict that a knowledge of Chinese will be big advantage in the job markets of the future. It is worthwhile remembering that Chinese is the language of business in only one country, China. Relatively few American kids are going to be working in China after graduating.

2) Chinese is not an international language and unlikely to become one.

Almost all Chinese speakers are in one country. Chinese is not an international language. It is not used widely by speakers of third languages. It is unlikely that this will change in the short term because Chinese is very difficult to learn, for most people.

3) Chinese is difficult.

Chinese has no vocabulary in common with English, unlike Spanish, where over the half the words are similar to English words. Most kids in the US who study Spanish do not  learn to speak. English speaking school kids in Canada have had similarly poor results with their French studies. It is likely that kids who study Mandarin in schools will have even more difficulty.

4) Learning the Chinese writing system is time consuming.

To write Chinese requires the learning of several thousand characters. Each character consists of up to 15 or more strokes.  Chinese children are surrounded by the written language from early childhood. Our kids would have devote an immense amount of time to this task. There is already a fundamental problem with literacy in English in our schools. Learning to write Chinese would be a major distraction for most school children.

5) There is little chance to use Chinese.

While there are around 40 – 50 million Spanish speakers in the US, there are only 2 million Chinese speakers. However, most of these Chinese speakers speak Cantonese, so students studying Mandarin would not have many native speakers to practice with, even assuming that some would learn to speak.

6) The rush to Chinese is being pushed by the Chinese government.

The Chinese government has a major program to promote Chinese language studies around the world and appears willing to pay for teachers and for trips to China for school administrators. This represents an opportunity to establish Chinese language programs in certain schools, no doubt. Is it advisable, however, for school curricula to be determined by the promotional activities of foreign governments?

7) Learning Mandarin makes sense for other reasons.

There are excellent reasons to offer Mandarin, as an option, in our schools, without the hype and without making it a “critical language”. For much of the last 4,000 years of history about 20% of humanity has been Chinese. Chinese culture has had an important influence on the course of history. The number of schools in the US offering Chinese has grown from 1% to 4% from 1997 to 2008. This is hardly surprising and is, in fact, largely overdue. Mandarin language instruction should be offered, and looked upon from a longer term educational perspective, and not as a sudden reaction to recent Chinese economic growth.

Steve Kaufmann is a former Canadian diplomat, and President of KP Wood Ltd. He is also the founder and CEO of Steve speaks eleven languages and maintains a blog on language learning. He wrote the book The Linguist, A Language Learning Odyssey.

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