Chinese...How's that for a 21st Century Skill?

Chinese...How's that for a 21st Century Skill?

Summary: A lot of folks are surprised when I tell them I took Japanese in high school. Out here on the east coast, it's not the most common language.

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A lot of folks are surprised when I tell them I took Japanese in high school. Out here on the east coast, it's not the most common language. When I tell them I'm from Seattle, it makes a bit more sense. Japanese was especially relevant in my community (actually a Seattle burb) with a couple of major employers that conducted serious trade with the Pacific Rim nation.

I read an interesting article in the Mansfield News Journal (not usually on my reading list, but this article percolated up) about the lack of emphasis on teaching foreign language, particularly outside the typical French/Spanish offerings. According to the article,

Just three years ago, only eight of Ohio's 4,000 public schools offered Chinese. Now, more than 60 do, according to state education officials.

Meanwhile, in Kentucky, fewer than 20 of the 1,200 public schools are offering some sort of Chinese instruction.

Despite the national call for more foreign language learning, Ohio and Kentucky do not require students to take a language to earn a diploma. Language requirements are necessary for students seeking honors diplomas in both states.

My three years of Japanese were the best classes I took in high school. They were generally harder than all the AP classes I took and my instructor's rigorous commitment to immersion (still not widely accepted then) made for a lot of learning. Perhaps more importantly, I walked away with a far better understanding of Asian culture than I might have just by having lots of Japanese and Korean friends. Nothing speaks to a culture like its language.

Here's where technology comes in, though. We now have an abundance of tools to bring strong language instruction to students in areas where it might be very hard to find a native Chinese speaker, for example. They're easy to find in Seattle; Ohio? Not so much.

Yet the ability to speak in a dominant foreign language and interact with other cultures with a degree of sensitivity is so utterly important as boundaries and borders disappear (especially in the business world) that we must leverage these technologies and get kids learning languages.

Distance learning is a piece of cake with a decent internet connection. EPals and plenty of other services can connect American classrooms to Chinese classrooms and allow for video and audio conferencing. Terabytes of media in multiple languages are free for the taking.

There is no excuse for the way we treat foreign language learning in America, especially when the technology to augment local resources is cheap and plentiful. Language requirements for graduation shouldn't be an afterthought - they should be integrated into the curriculum and should leverage the plethora of tools at our disposal to make sure our students graduate with fluency in something other than English (although fluency in English for our graduates would be nice too).

Topics: CXO, Browser, Enterprise Software, Software

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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24 comments
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  • Not a needed skill

    Many Chinese people are learning English from an early age.

    Imagine a situation in which a person with some Chinese in school is in a meeting with a Chinese person who has spent decades working on fluency in English. How likely is that Chinese person to request the meeting be conducted in English?

    Making a foreign language a minor part of learning is not the same as making it a lifetime priority.

    That said, knowing the history, culture, and customs of another people is valuable.

    Whether Chinese language is offered in Ohio is not especially important. Having a rudimentary knowledge of Chinese people is more likely to help the student understand the world and events.
    Anton Philidor
    • It [b]is[/b] a useful skill

      I have found that learning a foreign language improves one's English skills. Yes, you can learn culture without the language but everybody can benefit from knowing a another language. I have taken a little Latin, German, and sign language and each has proved useful throughout my life even though I can speak none of them fluently. I can think of no good from just knowing a single language.
      wonsil9
    • They learn our language because we

      are the current driving force of economies and financial institutions. If we screw the pooch on this, they could very well suplant us and make Mandarin or Cantonese the language of business. Since they seem to be the only nation really doing worth a damn financially. Learning a foreign language is important since it also breaks down cultural barriers and if the student actually applies a 1/4 of effort, they learn about a world outside their couple of city blocks. ]:)
      Linux User 147560
    • As long as we all stay home...

      In China there are two years of english required in middle school. Many students go beyond that as they want to compete and engage the rest of the world. They know language forms thoughts and concepts as much as the other way around. I think we should all stay home and continue to demand that everyone speak our language. After all we are Americans!
      bernalillo
      • Can't agree with you more

        We learn English (not American) since childhood in Hong Kong, they teach english in school so we have to learn it, regardless willing to engage the rest of the world or not. BTW, Cantonese is just one of the Chinese dialect, a language which you can speak but might not be written, at least not each & every word, writing is something else. Difficult to decipher? Right, you guys might never understand...
        Koneko S.
  • Another language in school...

    ... clearly should be taught from an early age. I was
    taught French as a kid (kindergarten french) , and
    then, after not speaking it for many years, still
    managed to understand what my friends in French
    immersion were saying. I'm from Canada, and I live in
    Toronto, Ontario. Around here, we take French for the
    second half of elementary school, and also in grade 9.
    I learned more in my two years of kindergarten french
    than I did in my 6 years of french as an older
    student. I continued to excel far ahead of my peers in
    my classes as a result of dimly remembered french
    classes.

    Of course, I'm not suggesting that you teach french. A
    asian language would be far more valuable. I think
    they should be teaching Chinese in schools here
    instead of French. I know more Chinese kids than I do
    French ones. And I know the reason is that we are
    technically a bilingual nation, but very VERY few
    English-Canadians speak French, and almost all French-
    Canadians can speak English (and those that can't
    usually won't talk to an English-Canadian, whether we
    can speak French or not). Of course, there is
    absolutely no reason why we can't learn multiple
    languages: in fact, we should. When I went to Europe,
    I was talking to a group of European kids on a field
    trip in Italy, and one of the things they asked me was
    how many languages I knew. I said, 'one' and they were
    absolutely baffled: the kid in that group who know
    only 3 languages was teased for knowing so few. The
    average among them seemed to be 5 or 6. It's
    ridiculous that we can't seem to learn even 2
    languages. Foreign languages should be a central part
    of the curriculum from the time that we are very
    young... spend the first few years of elementary
    school focusing on the 3 Rs... in at least 3
    languages.
    Caggles
  • We can't even get them to learn English...

    so why would we want to add more?

    Yeah, it's just a joke, but not a very funny one, considering how close to the truth it is.

    And yes I understand how important language is; I teach German as well as cultural geography, my wife is German; my brother speaks Korean and Welsh, my sister speaks Japanese, I get it.

    The problem in America isn't what we should teach, its how do we get kids to learn anything, and how can we keep from making teaching so miserable that no one will do it?
    ajole
    • You're wasting your time, he doesn't get it.

      He's on a 21CS crusade, forget actual education needs.

      Better teachers are needed and they need teach children how to learn on their own. Self learning is the only valid 21CS and it's not even new, but is more important now than ever.
      T1Oracle
    • Look at other countries...

      .... because the US seems to be the only developed
      country that has such a miserably hard time teaching
      their children. Every other country with even half the
      money and resources seems to have better education for
      children. There is something that most other countries
      must be doing that the US is not. It's time to look at
      the educational systems of those countries and compare
      them, to find out what could possibly cause the
      difference.
      Caggles
      • We have been analysing our ed system for generations.

        Want to know what the real issue is? Its our society and the value it places on education. I rarely ever hear about a parent who demanded any more than good grades and then it usually demanded of the teacher. A good teacher issues the grade that is earned, not given. There are kids with parent that really demand and model education from their kids. Those kids generally will learn no matter where they are, they will succeed. From a kid who's parents and neigborhoods are rooted in gangs or entertainment tonight the odds are competely against them. Yes, some pull them selves out, some are able to be reached by a teacher or mentor but most will remain locked in ignorant complicity with their environment, regardless of the latest buzzwords in public or private academia. And quit calling me Albert!
        bernalillo
        • Blame the parents?

          So you're saying that US parents aren't pushing their kids to succeed like parents in other countries?

          Hmm, it is true that America is one of the few countries where being intelligent and knowledgeable is considered a bad thing. Yet at the same time we envy those who are successful, but mostly the successful ones who entertain us and lead reckless childish lives with drugs, attention seeking public outbursts, infidelity in marriage, fake beefs (interpersonal conflicts) for publicity, etc...
          T1Oracle
      • Re: look at other countries

        Which countries?

        Over here in the UK, there's far too much emphasis put on passing exams and not on understanding a subject.

        The use of computers in education has a role, but it shouldn't be used as a way of keeping pupils entertained.

        As has been pointed out by several comments here, the emphasis in education should be learning to think. So much of modern life is just a 'distraction' which inhibits prolonged thinking.

        Passing exams isn't the primary goal of education. Understanding 'what?' and 'why?' is far more worthwhile to a person in the long run.
        V@...
        • Exactly. But we can't test that easily or cheaply.

          In the US, we want those things, but they are hard to test in a standardized multiple choice test. Teachers used to be asked to judge those things, but no one seems to believe we have the intelligence to do it, or the objectivity to do it fairly; and frankly, at the wages we are paid, we have lost many of those who could do it.
          As a result, our entire system has become skill oriented, and the skills we end up testing AREN'T the 21st century type.

          And as you say, there is so much that prevents our kids from thinking for themselves; the media and advertising are getting closer to the same thing every day; and parents have less and less to say about anything, except to whine about how bad it all is, and try to blame someone for it.

          Not that there aren't plenty of good parents out there, I know several who post here regularly; but they are a minority in my experience; or at least, a very quiet majority.
          ajole
      • Can't look at the other countries.

        They have totally different educational systems, because they have a totally different cultures. If you want to change our educational system, you have to change our culture. Which is why our system is in such trouble now. Our culture DID change, and despite what the Arby's ad says, change isn't always good.

        Our system was designed to make sure most people could read and write, do some math, and understand the issues when they voted; which is why most people before the 20th century didn't go to 12 years of school. Those that went to college either really worked hard to learn on their own or with a local mentor, or they went to a prep school.

        Somehow, our system changed; back in the 60's (and several other times in our history) everyone started playing the game of challenging everything we had always accepted as the basis for our culture; and education changed to reflect that. Soft math, soft science, more humanities, more socialist and even communist ideals, you're OK, I'm OK, and The Man sucks...and we started getting behind the rest of the world.

        So we started requiring 12 years, we started thinking every high school should be a prep school, and we started thinking every kid should be prepared for college, regardless of their abilities, desires, or anything else, because we have to make sure we are smarter than everyone, and we can't deny anybody the chance to be the best person they can, even if they don't want to cooperate, and even obstruct everyone else's opportunities.

        Meanwhile, in most other developed countries, they take the kids that aren't going to be smart enough for college, weed them out by the early teens, and send them to vocational schools where they become successful bakers, mechanics, and all those other highly needed but supposedly low-value jobs we Americans seem to despise as "blue collar". And they don't care if it is fair, they don't care if you are a late bloomer, and they don't care if it infringes the rights Americans assume they have, because they DON'T have the rights we do, nor the ones we THINK we do.

        You want to make our system better, you test the kids, send them to the appropriate school for their level of ability, and you live with the consequences. If you are rich enough and your kid scores low, you pay a tutor and try to get your kid out of a lower track, and if you are poor, well, your kid either studies hard at night to take some college entrance exam and get a scholarship, or they buckle down and become the best plumber they can. End of story.

        And you know, in our culture, that won't fly...
        ajole
  • RE: Chinese...How's that for a 21st Century Skill?

    I grew up in "Rat City" where the majority of the population was Vietnamese, Korean, Cambodian, Laotian and a smattering of Chinese. I was one of 65 white kids in my high school school of 600 students. So yes, learning Asian culture and language is integral to staying alive. Then again if you learned Japanese then you were in either West Seattle, Bellevue or Bellingham. (if memory serves me correctly.)

    I think it's important all students learn at least one other language other than Spanish or English.I really wish they would have kept Latin alive. ]:)
    Linux User 147560
  • RE: Chinese...How's that for a 21st Century Skill?

    This is a timely article for me, as I have been learning Chinese on line for several weeks. I have found numerous FREE resources and lessons, as well as essays on history, culture, calligraphy, grammar, music- you name it. When studying the language becomes tiring I enjoy reading about the culture for a change of pace.
    barrelhse
  • RE: Chinese...How's that for a 21st Century Skill?

    In re Chinese in school.

    In the not that distant past, China was the enemy, remember? Because our interaction with the Chinese was restricted to a few who made it on our shores, there was no need to learn.

    The change from China the Enemy to China The Trading Partner has been sudden. It will take time for schools to attract teachers who are qualified to teach Chinese. Also, don't be too quick to discount Spainish in today's economy. If you travel to Southern California, I think you'll find a significant Spainish only population - indeed, I find there are almost as many Spainish only TV stations as English ones in LA (7 English ones to be precise).

    As far as technology teaching language - old hat - people have used tape play-back and video recordings for years. I never could learn from it.

    Incidentially - in my own limited experience, I find being respectful of the country's ways and a few polite words like "please" and "Thank you" will get you a lot farther than been rude in the native tongue.
    Bruce L
  • 2008 the International Year of Languages

    UNESCO designated 2008 the International Year of Languages, with the slogan, ?Languages matter?. And they do - in so many ways. I've learned 5 (English-native, Spanish, French, German, and Sign) and bits of several others, and I agree with Caggles that the early learning is the most crucial. I had Spanish intermittently between ages 5-11, then again in High School, which made acclimatization in Spain (as a Foreign Exchange student) MUCH easier. French was easy after Spanish, but I must confess my German retention from college conversational classes is the most limited. There's nothing like needing and using the language every day to aid the retention. In this global economy, it's unrealistic to expect everyone else to learn English to deal with us, even if they make the effort. How limited, and egotistically stupid, must we be to expect everyone else in the world to learn English, when it's not even the majority language?
    I'd love to learn a few more - Mandarin was always on my list....
    cmeisner1
    • Lingua franca

      When communication among countries has been valued, a single language has been decided by consensus or as a result of political authority.

      In the Roman Catholic Church it was Latin. French was a later choice; hence the term in the title.

      English is now the world's common language. And I suggest that's not because of arrogant demands, but initially because of the US's status as largest economy and most powerful country militarily.

      Now, with globalization, the need for a single language is even more obvious. No one can speak as many languages as would be required if no one learned another language.

      So whether anyone in the US likes it or not - though we do like it - English will more and more become the world's second language. And, as the French have long regretted, people's first language will be influenced more and more by English.

      However.

      No one should believe that a Chinese person becomes exactly like a person in the US because he speaks US English.
      Anton Philidor
  • Ah, quality US education

    [i]Just three years ago, only eight of Ohio???s 4,000 public schools offered Chinese. Now, more than 60 do, according to state education officials.

    Meanwhile, in Kentucky, fewer than 20 of the 1,200 public schools are offering some sort of Chinese instruction.[/i]

    Sounds impressive, doesn't it? Those hicks in KY.

    Hmmm... Let's see: KY has 1200 public schools, OH has 4000. That's KY=0.3*OH
    0.3*60=18 -- "less than 20"

    Yeah, that's a news item: "Newspaper reporters flunk 5th grade math."
    Yagotta B. Kidding