Global Trends and the Chinese Field in the United States

A student with a globe

by Jeff Wang

September 6, 2013

Today, more than 200,000 Chinese students are studying at American schools and colleges annually, and tens of thousands of American students go in the other direction. General Motors is selling more cars in China than at home; Pacific Rim’s China box office is beating its U.S. performance. These are just a few of the statistics illustrating the latest trends in the U.S.-China connection. Along with this tremendous growth, equally impressive is the soaring number of U.S. students learning Chinese. We are thrilled to note that, eight years since Asia Society launched its Chinese Language Initiatives, well over 100,000 students are studying Chinese language in American schools and universities.

Not only are there more reasons and urgency than ever before to offer our students world language and cultural studies, these transformative study experiences open up more doors for the careers and lives of the next generation than were imaginable a decade ago. All trends need a tailwind to persist, and we’d like to offer some observations and thoughts on how to ensure our programs also increase in relevance and effectiveness.

While we continue to advocate for more funding and resources to be invested in world language programs in U.S. schools, ultimately, student experiences and achievements will determine the success of the programs. To improve those experiences and indeed strengthen the field, it’s an opportune moment to devote our attention and efforts to the following:

Improve professional development for Chinese language teachers both in their pedagogy and in their capacity to integrate culture and modern society in a compelling way. It is well understood that language and culture are inseparable. The rich, subtle, and amorphous nature of Chinese culture and history presents both opportunities and pitfalls when it comes to integrating culture into language teaching. Moreover, Chinese culture and society are undergoing a period of profound and rapid renewal that is relatable to the lives of today’s young learners in unprecedented ways. It is critical for our teachers to have comprehensive knowledge of the latest developments in China, the sensitivity to connect these changes to the lives of the learners, and the skill to integrate these aspects into their classrooms. In short, teachers need not only to know how to teach—through pedagogical training—but they also need to know what to teach.

Increase the awareness and abilities of educators and decision-makers nationwide to develop more and better language programs in the lower grades. Most children in China and Europe start their foreign language study in elementary school. Meanwhile, in the first decade of this century, the percentage of U.S. public elementary schools offering any world language instruction dropped from 24 percent 15 years ago to 15 percent today. Countless research and personal anecdotes point to a strong correlation between how early one starts learning and one’s fluency in a second language and culture. To ensure perpetual cultural and linguistic diversity—a vital source of this nation’s soft power—we must invest in a substantial increase of learning opportunities in the early grades. These early language programs also offer a suitable environment to implement the immersion model, which can result in highly fluent multilingual and multicultural graduates.

Engage students in language learning within a much larger context of U.S.-China connections, and its role both intellectually and as a career opportunity. We have always imagined that, had our efforts begun a couple generations ago, presidents Obama and Xi would have known each other in high school, worked on projects together, and—most importantly—communicated in each other’s language and on each other’s terms. The time is now for bringing together students of similar ages and helping them engage through traveling, playing, learning, and problem solving. It is through these experiences that our students activate their inner motivation to learn a new language and society, see themselves as bridges between cultures and beyond borders, and develop the habits of mind to seek a common cause and solution.

We live in an era when global exchange, diplomacy, and commerce increasingly demand and benefit from the advantage of employees and emissaries who are conversant and connected to the people and cultures we hope to learn from and influence. The only way to reap this dividend in the future is to smartly invest in our students today. We will continue to look beyond the field’s accomplishments and commit our thinking and efforts to the most pressing and promising issues.

Jeff Wang is the director of China Learning Initiatives in the Center for Global Education at Asia Society.