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
"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
Perhaps most important, an international business environment is
pushing Americans into a new sense of linguistic urgency, despite
the widespread use of English. …