... 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.