An alarming failure to communicate

Chris Livaccari

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously gave birth to analytic philosophy by declaring, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” As we enter the second decade of the most globalized century in human history, we can ill afford to be bound by our linguistic limits. The world is changing rapidly—faster than many of us can keep up—and the growing importance of Asia to the future of the United States has now been a fact of life for decades.

Asia Society has been working since 1956 to strengthen relationships and promote understanding among the people, leaders, and institutions of the United States and Asia across the fields of education, the arts, policy, and business. Asia Society’s work to build a Confucius Classrooms Network of U.S. schools with exemplary Chinese language programs is part of a broader strategy to help prepare Americans to communicate effectively with the rest of the world and compete in the global economy.

There is perhaps no country in the world today more important to the prosperity and stability of the United States than China. A 2007 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research forecasts that by 2040 China’s GDP will be larger than that of the entire rest of the world, and that the Chinese market will be larger than those of the U.S., European Union, Japan, and India combined. Success in that market and cooperation between the U.S. and China on a range of issues is critical to our future, and while there will, of course, remain areas of disagreement between the two countries, it is important that we prepare our next generation of leaders with the ability to communicate with China. The 300 million or so Chinese students in primary, secondary, and tertiary education learning English, and the 100,000 Chinese students here in the U.S., certainly seem to understand the value of being multilingual and globally competent.

Asia Society’s Confucius Classrooms Network focuses on improving the quality of Chinese language programs in the United States, building models for the effective teaching and learning of critical languages in American schools, and creating strong links between world language proficiency and twenty-first century skills.

The activities of the Network depend on ongoing guidance from a forty-member Expert Advisory Committee of national leaders in world languages and international education. The Network currently includes twenty schools in fourteen states and the District of Columbia, all with a strong commitment to making their Chinese program a core part of a larger mission toward helping students be more globally competent. The program supports the teachers and principals in each school in designing an instructional program tailored to the needs of their students, in coordination with their local superintendents and school boards. It should be noted that there are other programs that carry the name of “Confucius Classrooms,” most notably a statewide initiative in North Carolina, and those being established throughout the country by Confucius Institutes, but that these programs are unaffiliated with Asia Society.

There is a long history of governments supporting language and culture programs overseas. The U.S. State Department, British Council, Alliance Francais, Japan Foundation, Cervantes Institute, Goethe Institute, etc. all have such programs, and the Consulates of France, Italy, Spain, South Korea, the Netherlands, etc., all fund language programs in American schools. Japan and Italy recently announced three-year grants to school districts to support Japanese and Italian teachers during difficult budget times, and the government of France has worked with six schools in New York alone to establish dual language programs in French. Spain has a large and well-established guest teacher program. Furthermore, according to the National Education Association, there are approximately 10,000 foreign teachers working in the United States to fill shortages in science, mathematics, foreign languages, and special education because there are not enough qualified American teachers to take these positions.

We should perhaps pay close attention to the words of an eleven year-old middle school student on Long Island who was recently asked whether it would not just be easier if everyone in China learned English, instead of his trying to learn Chinese. His response was far beyond his years: “It’s good if they learn English, but it should be mutual. They can learn some English and we can learn some Chinese, and then we can communicate.” Young people have a way of stating truth simply and without pretence, and this student clearly understands both the urgency of making America more globally competitive, and of making himself more globally competent. Not surprisingly, this same eleven year-old decided to take Chinese so that he could help his engineer father on trips to China and see for himself the architectural wonders of the Great Wall and contemporary Shanghai. And don’t ask him who the guy in that huge portrait in front of Tiananmen Square is—he thinks “mao” is just the word for “small change” in Mandarin.

By Chris Livaccari

Livaccari is the Associate Director for Education and Chinese Language Initiatives at Asia Society. 

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