Beyond Linguistic Proficiency

(The White House/flickr)

By Jeff Wang

“If you want one year of prosperity, then grow grain. If you want 10 years of prosperity, then grow trees. But if you want 100 years of prosperity, then you grow people.”

Quoting a Chinese proverb, US President Barack Obama offered this toast to his guest, visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao, at a state dinner on January 19. The two heads of state had more than a full plate of issues to discuss during Mr. Hu’s recent visit to Washington, many of which were urgent and thorny. However, as Mr. Obama suggested in his toast, to ensure the long-term prosperity of both nations, we must focus on people, especially the next generation of young people that will shape a shared future.

Trying to understand all this is a bit like watching a fast moving train from three feet away—we think we are getting a firm grip on what is happening; yet in reality, only when we stand back can we begin to contemplate the perhaps more pertinent questions—how many cars, how fast is the train moving, and where is it going? In this instance, Mr. Obama is reminding us to take a wider view on how to manage this most critical bilateral relationship into the future.

This is surprisingly relevant as we examine the purpose and goals of Asia Society’s Chinese Language Initiatives. To be sure, we are happy to know that our efforts over the past six years have helped more American schools offer Chinese language programs, as well as benefit from partnering with schools and students in China. However, Chinese language programs should mean more than just a better chance in the global marketplace.

Our benchmark for success has a dimension beyond just students’ ability to speak, read, and write a certain number of characters and phrases. Language education and cultural exchange have a broader mission: to usher in a new cadre of young Americans who are both linguists and ambassadors, who have the ability to understand differences, and the capacity and creativity to find common ground.

For Chinese language education, we are familiar with the immediate and obvious yardstick: can a student after, say, five years of study, reach certain test scores, have a conversation with a native, or read a job ad in Chinese. To this end, we ask our students to recite vocabulary, “internalize” grammar points, and maybe even get frustrated over tones, measure words, and pronunciation! Don’t get me wrong – all these are essential building blocks of language learning. For English natives in particular, discipline and diligence are necessary for achieving any meaningful proficiency in Chinese. But, let us practice the abovementioned counter-intuition: stand back from the train that leads a nation of Americans, who can strike deals and negotiate peace in fluent Chinese, and consider the broader context of language education. Think about math and physics education beyond the basics—do we expect all of our students to be mathematicians and physicists? Not necessarily. We want them to understand and be able to apply the scientific method—to think like scientists and mathematicians and develop their habits of mind.

In addition to being able to produce target language based on rules given to learners, our students should be guided to discover linguistic patterns by observing, analyzing, hypothesizing, validating, and then applying their observations, experiences, and intuitions. This is what makes language learning much more exciting and stimulating—just what we would expect from serious linguists, physicists, or CEOs. (For more on this topic, please see Chris Livaccari’s “Academic Rigor and Student Engagement: A Perfect Match,” and “Improvisation, Insight, and Inquiry.”)

While we focus on language competency as an immediately tangible benefit in today’s global economy and job market, we must also broaden our view of the purpose of such education to include proficiencies in inquiry and discovery.

We may step back even further and take a wider perspective—Chinese language programs should also be training ambassadors for the future. First Lady Michelle Obama recently echoed President Obama in saying that "America has no better ambassadors to offer than our young people.” Ambassadors have the responsibility of representing their views and values to diverse audiences, while at the same time being able to resolve differences by finding common ground. What better way for students to acquire this ability than learning another language and building connections with their peers abroad?

Exchange programs may also benefit from a bit of stepping back. We often tell students who visit China that they should learn a foreign language and experience a foreign culture. This is certainly why we rush to the Great Wall near Beijing and the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an. But if this is the only purpose, what is there to see in Shanghai and Hong Kong, where there’s a Starbucks and English artifacts on every corner? We forget that, at its core, the Great Wall is just another defense initiative, and the Terra Cotta Warriors simply one way of preparing for the afterlife. They are indeed unique in representations, yet common in purpose with others that are more familiar to us, and that is precisely why they are so interesting.

By learning to appreciate ourselves—while at the same time appreciating the other—we become more confident, resilient, and insightful. Far too often, we view exchange programs to China as way to learn about the other—foreign people, foreign lands and foreign customs, and vice versa for Chinese students who travel to the US—what they eat, what their schools are like, and what their hobbies are. However, as the First Lady pointed out: “The defining challenges of our time are shared challenges… That’s why it is so important for more of our young people to develop that habit of cooperation … by taking the time to get past the stereotypes and misperceptions that too often divide us.” Students participating in exchanges should be expected to discover as many common aspirations among young people—and as many aspects of themselves—as differences in behavior and customs.

To develop this more granular appreciation, students must get past the immediate sensory overload that comes with landing in a foreign country halfway around the world—a kind of exhilaration not unlike standing three feet away from a high-speed train. As architects educational exchange programs, we must continually advocate this notion of stepping back and seeing the larger picture.

Chinese language and exchange programs have langauge proficiency as a natural objective. Yet, what is undoubtedly equally worthy is the development of students’ capacity for critical thinking, comparison, and negotiation – the skills employed by linguists and diplomats. As we encourage the discovery of differences between our languages, societies, and cultures, we should also give students the freedom to appreciate their shared reasoning, challenges, and ambitions.


Jeff Wang is the Assistant Director for Education and Chinese Language Initiatives at Asia Society.