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Teaching the Chinese Language in American Schools

To the Editor:

Foreign Languages Fade in Class — Except Chinese” (news article, Jan. 21) rightly suggests that American schools are recognizing and addressing a new responsibility to prepare our children for the 21st century: a greater familiarity with today’s China.

In 1996, when the U.S.-China Teachers Exchange Program, with financing from the Freeman Foundation, began bringing experienced teachers from China to teach in American elementary and high schools for one-year stints, we were fighting an uphill battle: American school administrators were generally mystified by the notion that teaching our children Chinese might be important to their futures.

Times have changed, and Chinese is now seen as extremely important; far more school districts request Chinese teachers through our program than we are able to provide.

But the ultimate success of Chinese language programs in this country depends on their institutionalization — and that requires effective teacher training programs, certification processes at the state level, and financing. We cannot depend forever on the generosity of foundations or the Chinese government to provide qualified Chinese language teachers.

Margot E. Landman
New York, Jan. 21, 2010

The writer is senior director for education programs, National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.

To the Editor:

American parents pushing their children to learn Chinese should know that the world is moving to a universal language, and it’s the one Chinese students are learning in their schools: it’s called English.

I’m trilingual. There was a time when my fluency was of great value in driving international business, but walk into a meeting today and the room, inevitably populated by people from several countries, will have only one common language, and it isn’t Chinese; it’s English.

To those who want to give a Chinese skill set to their children, I suggest instead a deep knowledge and appreciation of Chinese history, culture and politics. Knowing those areas will not only be profoundly appreciated by the Chinese, but they are also central to understanding the Chinese mentality, problems and style.

Spend seven years studying Chinese in a classroom in Ohio, then take a Chinese contact to lunch in Shanghai, and I guarantee that after two minutes both parties will slip into English. Spend the rest of that meal discussing the Han Dynasty, or developments in Macao, or the profound Chinese fascination with gambling, and a connection will be made that generates friendship and an enduring interest in meeting again to pursue common goals.

Ian Jarvis
New York, Jan. 21, 2010

The writer is an international trade consultant whose work involves China and the European Union.

To the Editor:

While I strongly support increased foreign language instruction in public schools, I was dismayed to read that the Chinese government is subsidizing language teachers’ salaries in the United States. Schools should not be using outside payments to determine which classes are taught. What’s next, science class brought to you by Big Oil? History taught by the preacher with the biggest bank account?

What children are taught, and by whom, should not be sold to the highest bidder.

Shaun Breidbart
Pelham, N.Y., Jan. 21, 2010