Study Chinese or Spanish?
December 30, 2010, 06:04 PM
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Nicholas Kristof opines in the NYT:
... we’re seeing Americans engaged in a headlong and ambitious rush to learn Chinese — or, more precisely, to get their kids to learn Chinese. Everywhere I turn, people are asking me the best way for their children to learn Chinese.

Partly that’s because Chinese classes have replaced violin classes as the latest in competitive parenting, and partly because my wife and I speak Chinese and I have tortured our three kids by trying to raise them bilingual. Chinese is still far less common in schools or universities than Spanish or French, but it is surging and has the �cool factor� behind it — so public and private schools alike are hastening to add Chinese to the curriculum.

In New York City alone, about 80 schools offer Chinese, with some programs beginning in kindergarten. And let’s be frank: If your child hasn’t started Mandarin classes by third grade, he or she will never amount to anything.

Just kidding. In fact, I think the rush to Chinese is missing something closer to home: the paramount importance for our children of learning Spanish.

Look, I’m a fervent believer in more American kids learning Chinese. But the language that will be essential for Americans and has far more day-to-day applications is Spanish. Every child in the United States should learn Spanish, beginning in elementary school; Chinese makes a terrific addition to Spanish, but not a substitute.

No, unless you have Chinese relatives, or are based in China for your job, or your child is a prodigy at learning languages, having your kid study Chinese will almost surely turn out to be a waste of time. Chinese is hard. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any adult in America who learned Chinese just by going to school in America.

Check out the Chinese Language and Culture Advanced Placement test results. In 2010, 3,426 Asian students scored 5s out of the 4,294 Asians who took the test, for an average score of 4.70. In other words, the AP Chinese test was taken mostly Chinese kids who already spoke Chinese. In contrast, only 229 white kids took the Chinese test, and only 26 in the whole country got a 5. (No Mexican-Americans got a 5, but 4 blacks did.)

Spanish may not be as prestigious as Mandarin, but it’s an everyday presence in the United States — and will become even more so. Hispanics made up 16 percent of America’s population in 2009, but that is forecast to surge to 29 percent by 2050, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center.

As the United States increasingly integrates economically with Latin America, Spanish will become more crucial in our lives.

No, it won't become crucial.

You can tell by looking at parents' fads in Los Angeles, which is a generation or more ahead of the rest of the country in terms of immigration. I've lived on-and-off in Los Angeles since the 1950s. My parents engaged in the same kind of discussion as this in 1972 when my mom wanted me to take French in high school and my father wanted me to take Spanish, which he argued, like Kristoff in 2010, was more practical.

I suspect the debate was basically about where my parents would like to go on vacations. My mom liked Europe because it was classy, while my father liked Latin America because it was cheap. My dad won, so I took two years of high school Spanish, and he and I took some fun trips to Mexico and South America while my mom stayed home.

Did this dispute between my parents have major consequences for my life? Not that I notice. Over the last twelve months, the language I've most often wished I'd studied has been German, but that may be a passing phase, and I wouldn't have learned it even if I had studied it, anyway.

I would endorse Spanish as the most reasonable choice for fulfilling a mandatory foreign language requirement, but I think English is becoming so globally dominant that we should probably reconsider whether we should have mandatory foreign language requirements at all. (If we should, then we ought to start them in elementary school, not after puberty when the language learning capability starts to shut down.)

The point is that I don't know many people in LA today who say, "Wow, I'm so glad my parents made me study Spanish in high school, and it's crucial to my children's future that they learn Spanish." Maybe if you are a politician, a slumlord, or a fast food franchisee. Where I live in LA, Russian and other Slavic languages are heard more and more on the street. (Hey, who won the Cold War anyway?

If any language is trendy with LA parents, it's Chinese. For example, one of the public elementary schools that Davis Guggenheim, director of Waiting for "Superman," drove his kid past in Venice to get to their private school has switched to Mandarin immersion and has recruited a much more fashionable set of children. I can't recall knowing any any white liberal parents in LA looking for a Spanish immersion school.

In LA, which is one of the largest Spanish-speaking cities in the world, Spanish has been out of fashion for years.

Even Latino kids agree. As I've pointed out before, it might be easier in LA to see a movie in Persian than in Spanish. I go to the Plant 16 movie theatre in Van Nuys a lot, where about 80% of the patrons are Hispanic youths, and they almost never have movies in Spanish, whether dubbed or foreign, and maybe have one out of 16 screens showing an American movie in English with Spanish subtitles. Granted, Van Nuys is, by Latino LA standards, pretty wealthy but still ...

Ron Unz's Prop 227 largely banned bilingual education in 1998, and that rare act of Anglophone assertiveness pushed on an open door. To a typical Mexican-American teen, English is a lot cooler than Spanish.

Similarly, educated liberal white people in LA pay almost zero attention to what is going on in the Spanish-language media in LA. The LA Times and local NPR and PBS stations make minimal effort to stay informed about what Spanish monoglots are talking about. For example, the huge turnouts of illegal aliens at Mayday marches in 2006 was a complete mystery to the LAT/NPR/PBS. Who told all these people to march? It took weeks for the Anglo press in LA to find out that it was funny morning disk jockeys on Spanish-language radio stations.

Is there any intellectual life in America that's carried out in Spanish? A decade ago, I was fascinated by a series of articles called "Los Amigos de Bush: The disturbing ties of some of George W. Bush’s Latino advisors" by Julie Reynolds in a smart bilingual Mexican-American magazine called El Andar, but nobody else was.

LA isn't Canada or Belgium, where two equally sophisticated cultures compete for cultural dominance. It's definitely not Miami, where Spanish-speaking sophisticates probably have the upper hand.

LA is just the future.