Guest Column

Adding Chinese to Our Language Offerings

by Donald Draayer

In the fall of 1988, AASA sponsored an educator trip to China, which put the country’s 1.2 billion people on my radar screen. China was clearly on the rise, even then. No seer was required to envision China’s prominent role in the 21st century.

However, convincing our school board back in Minnesota three months later to add Chinese to our world language offerings required much persuasion. I used this metaphor: A world language department without Chinese is like a baseball game without third base. English is home plate. Spanish covers Latin speaking countries. And German and French provide the historic ties to Europe. Who’s on third base?

On a 4-3 vote, the school board passed my Chinese language proposal but only when one critical caveat was added. The number of students in the classroom even in year one had to be the same as other world languages. Happily, spring registration was sufficient for one section, and a part-time Chinese-speaking teacher was available.

But that very summer, 15 students out of the 25 chose to withdraw (for “patriotic” reasons, they said) when the massacre at Tiananmen Square hit the news. Hurriedly, our curriculum director scrambled for grants. He found funding to subsidize the single section of 10 students.

A Need to Know
Today, some 17 years later, more than 187 students in the school district routinely enroll in Chinese classes each year. Students are taught by both American teachers and Chinese exchange teachers, and the community takes for granted these opportunities to learn another world language.

All the original reasons — and more besides — now justify Chinese as a world language in American schools. Chinese is the first language in China, but it is also the second language (for business and trade) in a host of other Asian countries as far south as Indonesia.

Trade goods on ships are flowing east and west across the Pacific Ocean. Airplanes carry people and products back and forth. The Internet provides instantaneous communication. A recent family birthday party included seven people bearing separate gifts, each of which we discovered bore a Chinese trademark!

China is a vast producer of goods, but as its economy grows, 1.2 billion people will increasingly become consumers. Chinese workers moving into the middle class currently save one-third of their income. Chinese children, like their American counterparts, watch TV on Saturday mornings whereupon advertisements reign supreme. China’s growing purchasing power is already evident in their housing, appliances, cell phones, computers, tourism and education.

China soon will be like one continuous mega-mall of consumers because the vast majority of people live along the sea coast, greatly simplifying mass marketing. American businesses are realizing that potential. Trade delegations to China this past year included those from California and Minnesota, each headed by respective state governors, thus illustrating the future course.

Within two years China will host the 2008 summer Olympic Games, which will greatly raise its profile on the world stage. The country’s remarkable transformation during the last three decades will become the global talk.

Maintaining Legitimacy
The implications for American education are clear. Preparatory institutions are expected to prepare — not just maintain the status quo. Institutions earn and maintain their legitimacy by being responsive to self-evident needs and to emergent needs.

Notably, clear signals of openness to the Chinese language are now evident from coast to coast, often prompted by visits to China. West Virginia’s state superintendent of public instruction, Steve Paine, now advocates for the Chinese language in more school districts in his state following his recent tour.

The same is true in Minnesota, where several school districts are starting Chinese language classes following Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s 2005 trade mission to China, which included several school superintendents. And San Francisco’s interim superintendent, joined by five school board members, took a week-long trip to China this summer in a party that included 400 school officials from across the United States. The district reportedly is considering expanding its Mandarin language program.

World languages like Chinese must be embraced in public schools because our own country’s future, politically and economically, depends on it. Educational leadership includes being an advocate and often a risk taker when a community is out of touch with the changing world and too comfortable with the status quo.

Don Draayer, the 1990 National Superintendent of the Year, is a retired superintendent. He can be reached at 5906 Holiday Way, Minnetonka, MN 55345. E-mail: