Chinese Gains Popularity
As Global Picture Changes
June 26, 1994
By Robert O'Malley
Imagine yourself at a train station in Guangzhou, China. It's rush hour, and wave upon wave of bicycles pass before you. You search for a hotel or restaurant sign to root you in the familiar but realize quickly that such a luxury isn't likely to be found here. In France or Spain, words are often decipherable because of their resemblance to English, but in China, you are confronted by a wall of Chinese characters resembling the pieces of an elaborate puzzle.
While you feel confused by your first encounter with the language and customs of China, you're almost certain to note their astonishing energy and power. You'll also undoubtedly conclude that your knowledge of this 5,000-year-old culture is limited, in part because your education never made learning about it a priority.
That, however, may be changing. In recent years, Americans have begun to recognize the importance of China, a country with one of the world's fastest growing economies and the world's largest population. Moreover, China is now an important US trading partner.
While the 1989 student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square carried the energy of contemporary China directly into American living rooms, the growing number of "Made in China" tags on clothing, tools, toys and other labor-intensive products consumed by Americans has given China a new economic dimension and prodded more Americans to consider learning about its language and culture.
This year at Harvard, for example, the number of students studying Chinese outnumbered those studying Japanese for the first time in some years, according to one instructor.
"Where there's change there's opportunity," say Topher Neumann, a Harvard Business School student who studied Chinese as an undergraduate at Dickinson College and has worked as a manger and salesman in China.
Neumann speculates that people who study Chinese seriously tend to be "risk takers" and may lean toward what he calls "out-of-the-box thinking." They also have to be persistent.
Another Harvard Business School student, John Delafield, who studied Chinese as an undergraduate at Princeton and later spent three and a half years in Beijing as Coca-Cola's northern China representative, suggests that learning Chinese requires perseverance and discipline.
"It's a time-consuming language," he says, "and it takes a lot of focus to see results."
Delafield and others say the difficulty of learning Chinese lies in mastering the language's tones and characters. Learning the characters, for example, involves memorizing about 3,000 of them to be literate, he says, while learning the tones requires practice. At times, he says, that can sound "like an opera class."
Like many Americans who have lived in China, Delafield believes educators need to pay more attention to Asia and its place in the global future.
"I certainly think the US doesn't have a strong enough Asian focus," says Delafield, who adds that Americans are "still essentially Eurocentric and they'll probably miss the boat in Asia to a certain extent."
While the Chinese Government requires middle-school and high-school students to study English because it considers the language the gateway to science and technology, Americans tend to assume they have less to learn from other cultures, suggest a number of educators.
"Americans seem to be more content with themselves and less interested in the rest of the world," says Chiu Son-Mey, who teaches Chinese language at Boston Latin School. In contrast, she notes, students in China tend to be curious about the Western world and what it can offer them.
Chiu says the roughly 96 students who study Chinese at Boston Latin are often dedicated and hard-working, but she believes many American students are afraid to take the language because they "think Chinese is very difficult compared to European languages."
According to the Massachusetts Department of Education, at least nine school systems in the state offer Chinese; many of those are in the Boston area. And while cities like Quincy, which has a growing Chinese-American population, have added Chinese to the curriculum, Spanish and French continue to be the languages of choice for a large number of high-school students in the state.
"We keep trying to build it," says Manuela Bartiromo, secondary curriculum coordinator for foreign languages at Brookline High School, which has been offering Chinese for more than a decade now. She says, "This year, we finally got 17 students to enroll in Chinese at the school, which is the largest number in recent years. I think children feel it's difficult."
Bartiromo fears Americans tend to have an "isolationist attitude" toward the world.
"We know everyone will speak English someplace," she says. "It's kind of a provincial attitude."
Moreover, she adds, American children appear to be less eager to learn languages in general, perhaps because they are "conditioned for immediate feedback, immediate response."
While a limited number of non-Asian high-school students are taking Chinese, much of the impetus to learn the language is coming from the Asian-American community, which contributes about half of the students studying Chinese in high schools and colleges. Recently, former Boston School Committee member Robert Guen and others proposed the creation of a charter school for Chinatown - to be called the Academy of the Pacific Rim - in which Asian languages would be taught as foreign languages.
While the proposal is still in the planning stages, Guen says that in the coming century, Asia will play a vital role in global affairs, and American students should be prepared for it.
In recent years, Boston's Chinatown also has begun to respond to a growing interest in China by offering more Chinese language courses to the public. C.K. Chan and several partners recently opened the Institute for Chinese Language Studies on Kneeland Street. He says that while a limited number of Americans in an earlier era were drawn to Chinese for cultural reasons, many people today want to "learn Chinese because of economics and potential business opportunities in China.
Chan and others believe knowledge of Chinese language and culture will help Americans develop the kinds of personal relationships crucial to success in China.
"Americans who succeed in China are those who know the local people," says Chao Yang Zhang, also involved in organizing the Chinatown language school.
He says the business practices of Chinese and Americans are sometimes different: while Chinese tend to rely on "street smarts," Americans are more likely to be guided by rules. "If you don't know the culture it's frustrating," he says. "You may not get it."
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