Chinese, an Opportunity

Spanish, French, German, Latin, and Chinese. Such were the language options available at my suburban public high school in Central Pennsylvania. Although the school district did not require its students to study a foreign language, it was highly encouraged, especially for those interested in pursuing higher education. We were lucky enough to sample each option during our final year of middle school, so we understood what we would be getting into. My freshman year of high school coincided with the Chinese program’s inauguration. Many students heeded the oft-heard advice to take “the language of the future,” and, as a result, Chinese I was packed. It especially attracted the high achieving students who would graduate at the top of the class.

Chinese I provided my classmates and me with a literal cultural shock, as we found ourselves in an unfamiliar situation—a class, an incredible one, taught by a woman with seemingly minimal English skills. While eighth grade concentrated on culture and was rather lax on correct pronunciation of tones, ninth grade was a struggle. For that matter, so were tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades. It took us four years to learn the material imparted to Harvard students in one. Many students did not make it, usually opting to divert their studies to Spanish in their sophomore or junior year. Those who did complete the challenge, however, were rewarded with a sense of achievement unavailable in other classes. In our senior year, we had an opportunity to put our hard-earned skills to use with a trip to the Middle Kingdom.

Few of us actually expected to have to employ our Chinese abroad. After all, we were imbued with the prideful presumption that everyone in the world speaks our language as well as the simmering timidity at our true linguistic ability. Both assumptions were immediately defeated. Rather than everyone speaking English, we soon discovered that, on the contrary, no one spoke English. On the plane I talked to a man who said he worked in finance. I tried to spark a conversation in English but quickly realized that was impossible. At a hotel in Beijing—one that seemed to have its fair share of Western guests and served both Continental and Chinese breakfasts—the maître d’hôtel was flummoxed by my friend’s request for “coffee,” until we conveyed our desire for two cups of “kafei.”  Later in the trip, we visited a Chinese high school, where crowds of basketball-playing students greeted us, eager to test out their English. However, their English was broken, and extended conversations were carried out either in a loose pidgin or facilitated by our teacher’s translation.

This was when I remembered my teacher boasting proudly about being the best English student in her class. Yet her speech was practically indiscernible my freshman year. After seeing a Chinese school firsthand, I realized the inherent deficiencies of English language programs in China. It is impossible to find good English speaking teachers for 1.3 billion people. My Chinese teacher confirmed my suspicions. Older Chinese are hubristic enough to look at their recent success and conclude, not unlike us, that they have no need to learn English and that the rest of the world would be sensible to brush up on their characters. Younger Chinese are excited to increase their life prospects with the language but lack quality educators to teach it to them. As a result, the world’s most populous country suffers from the competitive disadvantage of not being able to speak the lingua franca of globalization.

Americans can approach this situation in two ways. We can take pride in our exceptionality and believe others should learn our tongue. Alternatively, we can recognize the great opportunity to increase our national skillset and be able to communicate with people in the world’s second largest economy. The second option has very little downside—after all, it simply redirects time studying Chinese that would otherwise be spent learning European languages. Europeans have much more exposure to English, a language intrinsically closer to their own, and have a wide array of mother tongues, such that it would take much longer to be able to speak to each of the half billion people in the EU. Likewise, the linguistic choices of the half billion in Latin America are divided between Spanish and Portuguese.

Chinese speaking ability grants access to communication with over a billion people in the world. This opens quite a few doors in a world in which 64 percent of business executives are at least bilingual and 39 percent of employers hire specifically bilingual candidates. Since businesses generally want customers, as well as manufacturing partners, it stands to reason that knowledge of the language most spoken by a plurality of these groups is critically important and beneficial when job-seeking. Thus, it is within homo economicus’s rational self-interest to equip himself with this skill.

It may be more efficient for every Chinese speaker to suffer arguably less growing pains to learn English (although, as a native speaker, I cannot say if English is truly easier to comprehend—we have many convoluted structural practices unfound in the rigidly simplistic patterns of Chinese grammar). However, it is not America’s place to dictate efficiency to the people of the world. Rather, we can take this opportunity to benefit from the Tower of Babel inefficiency of multiple world languages. Until everyone starts speaking Esperanto, let us take advantage of China’s mulishness in learning English and put ourselves a step ahead.

John F. M. Kocsis ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, will live in Eliot House.