This statement was overheard on the subway the other night as a group of four high-school seniors discussed what language class they would sign up for in their first college semester. They assured us (their volume and tone loud enough that the whole car couldn’t help but participate) that if they got into a liberal arts college, it was bound to have a decent language program.
The tallest of the group was saying that his goal in life was to become the U.S. Ambassador to France, and for that French was the obvious choice.
The loudest of the group informed us all that he’d read a study that concluded, hands down, that students should learn Mandarin in order to get ahead once they graduate college. Interestingly, if you planned to go into business in the EU German would remain at the forefront of languages, it was important to know.
A couple of days later, I was watching BBC News before work, and there was a segment based on the 10th Annual HSBC/British Council Mandarin Chinese Speaking Competition, which had just been held. They spoke about the tiny number of British students who learn Mandarin vs. those who still take French and the fact that the Mandarin scholars were fighting off multiple job offers while the Francophiles were facing a bleak job market.
In a blog on the state of Mandarin education in the UK, John Worne, The British Council’s head of Strategy, said:
“The Mandarin Chinese language is becoming more and more important for the UK because, quite simply, China is becoming more and more important on the world’s stage. In 2011, China overtook Japan to become the world’s second biggest economy, and many confidently predict that they’ll wrest the top spot from the USA by 2050.
Some knowledge of the Chinese language is the ice breaker that gets you talking about culture – and business – in China. And our research shows a bit of language and culture goes a long way when you’re looking to trade.”
What I find encouraging and fascinating is that while the whole world is increasingly learning how to speak English – and the Chinese are leading that charge (see great TED video), it is still crucial for Americans (and the British) to put some blood, sweat, and tears into learning new languages to show the sincerity of our commitment to understanding other cultures and working with other countries on their terms as well as on ours.
The familiar Nelson Mandela quote says it better than I can:
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. –Nelson Mandela
Let’s face it; things might be looking up in the U.S. if a group of high school seniors going out on the town on a Friday night knew that what languages they spoke when they got out of college would have a huge impact on their career choices.