Thursday, March 01, 2007

Language of the Future

When I was in high school French or Spainish were the two languages we, as blossoming young linguists, were given to study. If you were really into learning the root of the English lanugage you could also take Latin. But that was for the geeks. Like me.

You thought deciphering the accents of the French language or the rolling 'r's of Spainish were difficult, trying learning an alphabet with 10,000 characters. More and more oftoday's public schools are putting America's young tykes through Mandarin immersion courses. Why now? China's booming economy. Not only is it now the world's most populous country it's also the world's largest potential market of untainted consumers. So, as you can imagine it would help if we spoke their language. Or at least tried.

In California, 41 public and private schools offer Chinese language training. Sentaor Joseph Lieberman co-authored a bill that would bring in a flood of $1.3 billion to augment Chinese classes in school. Parents are lobbying school administrators and local leaders to put a Chinese program in their children's school. Gov't, schools and parents all fighting for the same thing? Now that's new.

Suddenly, all those Chinese language programs, once quiet and gathering dust, are bursting at the seems with interested young 6th graders (or rather, the parents of 6th graders). Asia Society has a program and opportunity webpage as a resource for Chinese teachers to get jobs in American schools. But even that isn't meeting the need. The Chinese American International School (CAIS) here in San Francisco has programs that start as early as kindergarten.

``I think what all of us in the profession are trying to do is dramatically increase the study of Chinese,'' said Andrew Corcoran, head of the school and executive director of the institute. ``The latest figures indicate that only 24,000 students study Chinese in the United States and 200 million Chinese students are studying English. We don't even get a line on the graph, that's how small it is.'
Is it possible that economic explosion that 1 billion people represent is the driving force behind this? Or is it actually a product of the Chinese government's effort to make Chinese the world's #1 language? Regardless, being able to order from my local Chinese restaurant in Mandarin would be sweet.

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