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Do All American Schools Need to Teach Chinese?

Given the growth of the Chinese economy, Sweden's considering adding Chinese classes to grade schools. Should we be doing the same?

Given the phenomenal growth of the Chinese economy, more American schools are adding Mandarin Chinese to their foreign language offerings. But no Western nation is taking Chinese language education more seriously than Sweden. Time reports that the Swedish education minister Jan Björklund recently announced plans to add Chinese to their nationwide grade school curriculum. According to Björklund, learning Chinese is going to "be much more important, from an economic perspective" than the traditionally offered European languages. Do American schools need to do the same to stay economically competitive?


China's economy is growing at a phenomenal clip and this year they became the world's top producer of manufactured goods. Their Gross Domestic Product is $5.88 trillion, the second largest in the world after ours. But, if that GDP is broken down per capita, China's poorer than 99 other nations around the globe and Qatar, where Arabic is spoken, is the wealthiest. (No one is suggesting that Arabic be taught.)

Of course, the real issue isn't whether or not Chinese is the second language American students should be learning. The problem is that our students aren't learning another language to the point that they're globally employable, period. We're lucky if American students graduate from high school with two years of French or Spanish under their belts. That level of proficiency isn't enough to go somewhere else and get a job. In the meantime, we complain about how company call centers are outsourced around the globe, or how foreign workers take jobs in Silicon Valley—all without acknowledging that this is only possible because other nations, like Sweden and China, have made teaching English from grade school on up a priority.

Sweden's simply enacting reforms to ensure that their students are globally competitive instead of just locally competitive. Given the Chinese economy, it's smart thinking and it wouldn't hurt us to consider doing the same. Sure, America needs more math and science graduates, and we need the creative, problem-solving skills the 21st century requires. But unless we take learning a second language seriously, we're still not setting the workforce of the future up for success.

photo via photo.pennlive.com

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