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Are Mandarin lessons a good investment?

Published March 10. 2012 09:02AM


As you are reading this, (God willing) I'm in Beijing. Along with a Chinese colleague on my university's faculty, I'm leading 32 students on a short-term study tour of China over Spring Break. In a breathless 10 days we'll also do Xi'an, where the famous clay warriors reside, and Shanghai, one of China's showcase cities.

The People's Republic of China has been puzzling to us Americans for about as long as I've been alive. In 1949, Mao drove Chiang Kai Shek off the mainland and onto Formosa, now Taiwan. When I was a grade school kid, Kennedy and Nixon debated the fate of Quemoy and Matsu, two tiny islands owned by Taiwan that the "Reds" shelled on every major Chinese holiday.

Some ten years or so later, Nixon visited China, gave Mao a hearty handshake, made funny faces while trying to eat Chinese cuisine and, basically, reopened China. In another 10 years, Mao's successor, Deng, started the Middle Kingdom down the path of capitalism.

The (now) 1.3 billion Chinese have, by and large, responded to the capitalist call with enthusiasm and success. Here's a little test. I'll betcha that every one of you is - right now, as you read your TIMES NEWS- wearing something or using something that was made in China. An awful lot of good American manufacturing jobs went to China. The Peoples Republic holds a frightening amount of America's national debt.

As consumers, we Yanks benefit from China's success every time we shop in Wal-Mart. As workers, we can only see China as a threat.

That's not to say the Chinese don't have troubles of their own. Their cities are cheek to jowl with hicks from the countryside in search of a better life. Those left behind are said to resent their country lots. Privatization has left a few fabulously wealthy and more than a few poorer and less secure than under pure Communism. (Hmm… that doesn't sound so different from here in the States, does it?)

Some worry that China's dynamic growth has blown a great big bubble that will pop one of these days.

Me? I think that the two superpowers of the 21st century will be - already are? - Uncle Sam and Confucius. Whether we are friends or mortal foes, we are stuck with one another.

China recently launched its first aircraft carrier, and Secretary of Defense Gates is talking a lot these days of reorienting our armed forces from the Middle East to the Pacific Rim. Good idea.

Maybe Mandarin is a good language choice for the younger generation. Sure looks that way to me.


Well, I was never very good with languages other than English, in which I majored in college. Even if I had been, Mandarin certainly wasn't offered at my high school. We had four choices: French (romantic), Italian (ditto), Latin (ostensibly for a better SAT score), or Spanish (practical). Obviously, adults told us to take Spanish; Spanish was the language that would look good a resume and give us a leg up in the job market. Of course, I didn't listen; I decided to go totally impractical and take French. I imagined myself at a café near the Seine, writing in a notebook and ordering my coffee in fluent French. Five years of French and one trip to France later, and I can barely remember how to say please and thank you.

On the other hand, I know exactly one person from high school who can speak fluent Spanish, and I think it's no coincidence that she was born in the Ukraine. You see, languages don't seem to be a strong point for many Americans. Case in point, a quote I've heard more than once (usually spoken in an exaggerated southern drawl): "We don't speak English, we speak American."

Second point: we complain constantly about immigrants who don't speak perfect English - "They live in America now, shouldn't they speak the language?" - but we're somehow completely miffed when we visit a country where every sign isn't translated into English for our convenience.

But I digress. I guess my main point is this: America is, and always will be, the center of the universe. At least we like to think so.

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