By Marjorie Coeyman writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Studying Chinese is not for the tentative scholar. Its writing system uses several thousand characters. Pronounce "mom" in the wrong tone and you've suddenly called her a horse. Then there's the completely different set of cultural values that can test an aspiring speaker schooled in Western perspectives.
What it adds up to is the need for a lot of commitment. Just ask Cliff Shapiro. "There are times when I want to go hang out with friends and I have to do a character sheet instead," says the eighth-grader from Larchmont, N.Y. But on the whole, he insists, "It's definitely worth it."
They're sometimes called "critical" languages - for one reason or another, languages considered vital to US national interests. But despite that lofty classification, finding classes in Russian, Chinese, Japanese, or Korean in American schools can be as difficult as the languages themselves.
Yet there's evidence that an increasingly global economy is spurring more US schools to offer their students linguistic challenges beyond those of French and Spanish. Numbers remain small and are hard to pin down. Too, their popularity can fluctuate in concert with political crises or perceived market opportunity.
But for those willing to take on the daunting task of mastering difficult grammar and unfamiliar script, the rewards can be significant. Growth in discipline is a given. A wider world perspective that jibes well with the study of history is a plus. And as a nice - though frequently unexpected - benefit, the mention of Russian or Chinese study can have a certain eye-catching quality for many college admissions officers.
Chinese is one language that is clearly on the fast track. In the 1995-96 school year, 87 public and private schools taught Chinese to 8,622 students. By this year, those figures had jumped to 178 schools and 21,611 students. Of those, 7,569 were elementary school students, compared with only 2,248 in 1995-96.
The Plainview-Old Bethpage school district on New York's Long Island set up a K-4 Chinese program for all elementary school students almost five years ago, when school administrators became convinced that "it was a priority to bring in a major world language," says Elizabeth Welshofer, director of modern languages for the district.
While Chinese is growing, however, there is some evidence that the numbers of US students learning Japanese (on the rise in the 1980s) and Russian (more popular before the collapse of the Soviet Union) are declining.
So many, yet so few
The total number of students seriously studying critical languages before college, say the experts, hovers somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000.
To many, that is disappointing and shortsighted. More than 95 percent of resources expended on language study in the United States are poured into French, Spanish, and German - languages spoken by only 8 to 12 percent of the world's population, says Galal Walker, professor of Chinese at Ohio State University and past president of the National Association of Self-Instructional Language Programs.
"We don't tend to think about this, but Americans are working at a very low language level," Professor Walker says, adding that about one-fifth of the world population speaks Chinese.
But some educators say they see change on the horizon. For one thing, advances in technology mean distance learning and self- instruction can help to offset the scarcity of textbooks and instructors that often inhibits the study of such languages. In addition, a growing tendency to begin language study earlier makes it much more feasible to think about tackling the more-challenging languages.
Perhaps most important, an international business environment is pushing Americans into a new sense of linguistic urgency, despite the widespread use of English. …