Chinese or Spanish: What Do You Think?

Nicholas Kristof, a NY Times columnist, had an interesting column with a premise about parents rushing for their children to learn Chinese (Mandarin) while Spanish seems to be more to the point for our own country's interests (both in population and borders).

From the column:

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.

He points out that we have many more Spanish speakers in this country and, increasingly, more economic ties to Latin and South America.

He sums it up this way (which mirror comments from the Seattle Times readers):

In effect, Chinese is typically a career. Spanish is a practical add-on to your daily life, meshing with whatever career you choose.

I would agree. China is the big power that will only get bigger in the next decade. But practically speaking, you'd be more likely to use Spanish in this country. I think learning any language is a good idea to be a better educated person AND to learn more about the world in general.

One Seattle Times' commenter had the tired old line about people in this country not learning English. That may be true for some immigrants but only for a very small percent of the population. It is just not plausible to be successful in this country and not learn to speak English. It's true that when you move to most countries, they are not going to necessarily speak English to you. (Nor can you expect your child to get bilingual education in their schools.) But English is the lingua franca of the world so yes, if you go visit many countries, you'll find people who speak English.

Anyone know the percentage of Americans who learn another language (versus learning it at home from relatives) versus citizens of other countries who learn a language?


Charlie Mas said…
I keep telling my kids that we live in a Spanish-speaking country.

For what it's worth, I believe that when the era of American hegemony closes (yes, it will end, don't take it personally) it will be followed by an era of Brazilian hegemony - not Chinese or Indian.

The transition from Spanish to Portugese will be easy.
Eric B said…
Echoing Charlie, once you know one Romance language, it's often possible to fake your way through at least basic reading and maybe even tourist-speak in another. Spanish won't get you a prime table in Paris, but you can probably figure out what you're ordering and where to get on the Metro.
Steve said…
I definitely agree about Spanish first. This is the language that most people in the U.S. will have an actual chance to use, and therefore remember. I realize that China is an economic superpower and (of course) there are maybe a billion people who speak the language, so it's definitely one of the most interesting languages to learn. I'm always concerned that language offerings always follow politics or economics instead of culture.

Wait...after 9/11, weren't we all supposed to be studying Arabic?
Eric B said…
One more thing--my impression is that Chinese takes far more study to get to basic communication than Spanish. There is so much that is wildly different from English (tones, writing system, etc. etc.)
Charlie Mas said…
I think Chinese can never be a dominant world language because the writing is pictographic rather than alphabetic.

That not only makes it too difficult for non-native speakers to learn, it makes it difficult to communicate online.
anonymous said…
At the high school my child attends all of the Spanish I, II, and III classes are full, and very hard to get into. They turn away many kids who request them. French classes are also full, but do not have to turn away as many kids as Spanish. Japanese classes on the other hand are not even close to full. They get a few kids that request them, and they take all of the kids who did not get into their first choice language classes, Spanish and French.

Not sure what demand would be like for Chinese. They do not offer it at this time.
Bird said…
I would think it would be the same for Chinese as Japanese.

The same reasoning would hold. Spanish would be deemed more useful, and, perhaps even more important for kids not really interested in learning a language, much easier.
Patrick said…
Charlie, why Brazil? It's has a big population, but it's poor and has little influence outside Latin America.

China and India both have a larger middle class than Brazil, and China owns a lot of U.S. debt. That means when they choose, they can dictate economic bailout terms to us, as we have become accustomed to doing to third world countries for the past 65 years.
Shannon said…
Recently, I have been making phone calls around the US. It embarrasses how many people answer in Spanish and I have no clue what they are saying. The vast majority change to English when they realize I am clueless. I think that people want to their kids learn the language of the dominant because it provides access to money and opportunities. China looks more powerful so they pick China. I have been in the US 10 years this month and I think its about time to learn Spanish. School or no school, the best way for my kids to learn is if we do it as a family.
Anonymous said…

Brazil is the largest country in the Western Hemisphere after Canada and the United States. It has the most natural resources and has just discovered massive new oil deposits.

Brazil has the highest rate of industrialization in Latin America. For example, it is a net exporter of automobiles. It is also among the world's leaders in developing alternative fuels.

Brazil, like India, is poised to take a huge economic leap in the next generation. I think Charlie is spot on here.

-- Ivan Weiss
dj said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
dj said…
I would settle for instruction in any semi-relevant foreign language at an age (elementary school) where it might produce fluency.

As it is, this discussion seems to me like picking out the color of my unicorn.
Jet City mom said…
I would settle for 4 years of a language available to all who want it in high school- with a teacher who is highly qualified.

Being we can't guarantee that, for those taking Spanish, let alone Mandarin or Hindi- perhaps we should stick to something that we may be successful at rather than something that sounds impressive to our peers on the east coast.
Jet City mom said…
My daughter took Mandarin in grade school ( & her school even had a trip to Chongqing- as part of the sister city exchange)
I helped with the classes, but as I had not been exposed to the language as a child, I could not even hear the difference in intonation.

China has been funding language instruction in the USA as well as other countries- which is all well and good I suppose, but I would like citizens to decide what languages their children will learn.
they have a lot of $$$
Maureen said…
As it is, this discussion seems to me like picking out the color of my unicorn

I want mine to be opalescent! Is that even a color?

My 11th grader is taking French because that's what he wanted. He can pick up Spanish later (badly) if he needs to. I agree with Eric B that it will help him fake his way through any Romance language, but I'm going to lean on my younger one to take Spanish (unless she wants to take Latin--I'm a sucker for dead languages!).

I would only choose Mandarin if I had the resources and the fortitude to pay for it and enforce practice over years and years. I have a good friend who chose not to speak Mandarin to his son because he was concerned that it would slow his English language development. Now he's really sorry (the kid is studying Spanish in Middle School.)

I agree with Charlie about Brazil. Natural resources! And large enough to spread risk over geography and population. But how close are Portuguese and Spanish really?
CCM said…
That's funny Maureen about leaning on your youngest to take Spanish (and I wish all of our kids took Latin).

We tried leaning on our middle school kid to take Spanish instead of French precisely due to our belief that Spanish is much more relevant.

We lost - and he is now in French. The funny thing is that the first day of class, he came home with a quote from the (really excellent) French teacher that French is the official language in 27 countries so the idea that the language is "dying" is incorrect.

We still wish he was taking Spanish.
Unknown said…
Any language will help. English is and will continue as a lingua franca for decades if not a century before any serious displacement will occur. English is the language of money and business...even in countries where the native languages are different. I'm not saying this as an argument for English exceptionalism or some misguided sense of post-Colonial loyalty. The infrastructure and personnel are there to perpetuate English as the Global standard. Because it is efficient and because English is very technology friendly and because English will steal words from other languages it is still the apex predator in the linguistic food chain.
wsnorth said…
Learning any 2nd language helps the brain open up and think in a different way, and should be encouraged.

Consider this. If a person could speak English and Chinese, that person could travel to almost any large city in the world and converse with a significant number of that city's inhabitants?

Spanish, well, maybe that can help order cervezas on vacation.

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