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Chinese language programs and immigrants: new opportunities and challenges

Lisong Liu is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of Minnesota

In recent years American media have paid a lot of attention to the surging public interest in the Chinese language and the increasing Mandarin Chinese language programs in the US.

Traditionally the Chinese language had been taught mainly within Chinese immigrant communities to preserve cultural heritage among next generations. The normalization of US-China relations in the 1970s led to the establishment of Chinese language programs in American schools. However, up to the early 2000s, the Chinese language was still much undeveloped compared to other commonly taught languages such as Spanish, French, German, Italian and Japanese. A 2002 survey of college and university courses shows that less than 3 percent of total enrollment in foreign language is in Chinese, and the number of the enrollment at American elementary and secondary schools was even lower, with only 0.3 percent. (http://askasia.org/chinese/publications.htm, www.actfl.org/files/public/Enroll2000.pdf, http://www.adfl.org/projects/index.htm).

Realizing (again) its lack of understanding of non-Western societies and cultures after 9/11, the US government designated several languages as critical for its national security and launched the National Flagship Language Initiative (NFLI) in 2002. NFLI provided funding to major US universities to develop institutional and national infrastructure required to produce highly proficient language graduates in strategic languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Hindi/Urdu, Korean, Persian/Farsi, and Eurasian languages (Russian, Central Asian). http://www.nflc.org/nfli/languages.asp; http://www.nflc.org/projects/recent_projects/nfli; http://www.iie.org/programs/nsep/flagship/ In 2006, President Bush launched the National Security Language Initiative (NSLI) which was designed to increase the number of Americans learning strategic languages through new and expanded programs from kindergarten through university and into the workforce. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2006/58733.htm; http://exchanges.state.gov/nsli/fact_sheet.htm

With China’s fast economic development and increasing global influence, Mandarin Chinese has been given intensive attention as one of the critical languages. In 2005, the National Security Education Program chose Chinese as the prototype for a new major development of the NFLI: the Chinese K-16 Flagship http://www.actfl.org/files/public/NFLIChineseK-16PilotProjectPR.pdf In Congress, Senators Joseph Lieberman and Lamar Alexander introduced the US-China Cultural Engagement Act in May 2005 which aimed to provide $1.3 billion to enhance Chinese-language education in K-12 schools, expand the exchange of artists, scientists, and students between the US and China, and promote scholarly studies on contemporary China. http://www.nccaonline.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=22&Itemid=36

This surging public interest in Chinese language and culture contributes to Chinese immigrants’ interaction with and integration into the American society. In the Twin Cities, social and cultural events organized by Chinese immigrants have attracted more and more Americans not of Chinese origin (http://www.caam.org/modules/wfchannel/index.php?link=home;
http://www.mn3c.org/home.php). The Ha Family Entertainment, a local troupe performing Chinese dance, has witnessed increasing demand for Chinese cultural performances in American schools and local festivals (see this audio slideshow of its lion dance in the New Year’s party of Yinghua Academy, the first Chinese immersion school in MN: http://www.startribune.com/slideshows/15475716.html). During the late December 2007 and mid-May 2008, it has been scheduled for 18 performances in various circumstances including the grand opening of a law firm and other cultural activities of large corporations such as Target, Best Buy and the Marriott Hotel (http://www.ha-family.com/)

While the surging American public interest in Chinese language and culture has provided unprecedented opportunities for Chinese communities in the US, a historical reflection cautions us about the potential challenges and risks as well. There had been similar American public interest in the Russian language in the 1950s and 1960s and in the Japanese language in the 1980s, and both cases remind us that American interest in foreign languages and cultures had been usually triggered by the fear of the US government of those cultures as existing or potential challengers: the Soviet Union as an “evil? communist rival and Japan as a formidable economic competitor. In the current case of China, things may be even more complicated as China may be perceived as a combination of both. This in turn will place Chinese Americans in a trap of being perceived as potentially disloyal and harmful to the US national interest.
Recent history indicates that this potential risk is not imagined but is lurking right around the corner. In 1982, with increasing Japanese economic competition, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was mistaken as Japanese and beaten to death by two white Americans working in the declining auto industry hit hard by its competitive Japanese counterpart. In 1999, Dr. Wen-ho Lee, a Chinese American scientist from Taiwan, was falsely charged as a spy for mainland China, a case clearly revealing the US government’s fear of the “red China? and its readiness to cast suspicion and exert persecution on Chinese Americans.
This potential risk has been made even more delicate by recent efforts of the Chinese government of boosting Chinese language programs abroad. Since 2004, the Office of Chinese Language Council International (Hanban), a government agency promoting the spread of Chinese around the world, has started opening Chinese language and cultural centers (Confucius Institutes) abroad. It has sent over 2000 voluntary teachers abroad and up to July 2007, there had been more than 170 Confucius Institutes established in more than 50 countries. The US has the largest number of Confucius Institutes (18), followed by Thailand (13). http://www.hanban.org/en_hanban/index.php

While current American attitude towards the spread of Chinese language programs is welcoming in general, there has been no lack of concerns and suspicions about China’s political influence and expansion of power (http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0104/p17s01-legn.html, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89350477) Therefore, while emphasizing its purpose of promoting cultural exchanges and friendship, the Chinese government needs to be cautious about both guarding against any tendency to misuse its energy for unwarranted purposes and avoiding being mistaken by other countries as disguised expansionism or neocolonialism (http://www.economist.com/opinion/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10853534). Also importantly, the Chinese government needs to be cautious about the delicate impact of its increasing global influence on Chinese immigrants and their descendants abroad.

On the part of the US, a more efficient way seems to be supporting the learning of Chinese and other foreign languages not simply for national security but for long-term solid cultural understanding. Its support for foreign languages cannot be just responsive to constantly rising and ever-changing crises but should be based on sincere respect for and acceptance of different cultures. A fundamental guiding principle for foreign language programs in the US should not be “clash of civilizations? but be cultural coexistence, mutual enrichment and co-prosperity. By enlarging foreign language programs, the US also gains a great opportunity to engage and understand its own diverse ethnic communities and to better integrate them into the mainstream society rather than single certain groups out as suspicious aliens when needed or convenient.