Last year was a good one for the People's Republic of China, a sleeping giant during most of our lifetimes. The most populous nation in the world with 1.3 billion people now has the second largest economy on the planet.

Japan announced in November that it had been surpassed by China for the second straight quarter in output of mobile phones, computers and vehicles. President Obama yesterday acknowledged China's place as a growing market for U.S. goods, and provided a lighter moment for visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao, by admitting "We want to sell you all kinds of stuff."

China's growth in the global market also translates into better lifestyles for its people. In just over three decades, hundreds of millions have been ascended from poverty and today 10 percent live below the poverty line. In 1978, it was 64 percent.

Life expectancy has also risen dramatically in that span – to 73 years – and more than 100 million people have now reached "middle class status, which is defined by an annual income of $17,000.

On the eve of this week's visit to Washington, Hu said that the U.S. dollar's dominance of financial markets was a "product of the past," suggesting China would be taking a stronger approach. Reaching any long-term solutions to the major trade disputes and economic issues dividing the world's two largest economies will be a difficult task for the administration.

Accompanying China's strong growth numbers is the dramatic increase in literacy. More than 93 percent of the population is now literate. Six decades ago it was just 20 percent.

Back in the day, the foreign languages being taught in my high school were Spanish and German. President Obama realizes America may be under the learning curve when it comes to language arts. During his 2008 campaign run, the president admitted being embarrassed at not speaking a foreign language.

With their growing influence in the global marketplace, the Chinese have an action plan in place in their schools. In China, there are 200 million students learning English. In our county, meanwhile, only 50,000 American students are learning Chinese.

One school that has stepped up to the plate is City Terrace Public School in Los Angeles. In that district, 90 students have been learning Chinese since kindergarten. The principal of the school said the younger children are "like little sponges" when it comes to absorbing a new language.

Although school budgets are tighter than ever, districts should realize that expanding a language curriculum to include Chinese can no longer be considered part of a long-range plan. China's influence in the world is now an established fact and it figures to remain a major player for years to come.

Let's hope our schools can keep pace.