Mar 10

German and/or Chinese?

Written by berlinf on Tuesday, March 10th, 2009 at 3:36 am
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In a recent commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education (March 6, 2009, A33), Professor Brockmann (professor of German at Carnegie Mellon University) pointed out that the study of foreign languages should not be a zero-sum game.His commentary is a response to the University of Southern California’s plan to eliminate the German Department to usher in studies of Eastern Asian languages such as Chinese and Japanese. I think he has got a point in saying that this is not a zero-sum game.

But I really wish he had written this article several years earlier. In that case, I could have shown it to a European language professor who served on a curriculum committee at the time we submitted an application to include a Chinese program. I remembered he tried to block that proposed Chinese program from the university curriculum using a rather far-fetched excuse. Some colleagues and I suspected that something else was going on in this negative response. Unfortunately, no Chinese professor was on the curriculum committee to change the situation, as Chinese is a new entrant in university language curriculum. It still is.

Indeed the study of foreign languages should not be perceived as a zero-sum game, but I guess budget can be. I just hope that Chinese professors are equally vocal about the need to include Chinese program in curriculum in spite of certain resistance. As things now stand, there are still more European languages in the universities and even k12 schools, but fewer Asian languages. Asian languages are still rather marginal, though there is much hype about it. Some universities or k12 school districts depend on teachers sent from the Hanban (A Chinese office for promoting overseas Chinese teaching)to send temporary teachers as a makeshift solution to the problem of no official Chinese program in the university or school district. I hope that will change. Whether learning Chinese can improve economy is beside the point. Language offers a channel through which we communicate, which is getting more and more important as the west meets the east more often, more intensively and on a increasingly larger scale.

Unfortunately, the “zero-sum” article seems to be arguing against itself in the second half. The writer is suggesting that European languages should be supported because of their closer relationships with English. If you look at that from a different perspective, that argument leads to more reasons to learn Chinese or an Asian language, because people learn a foreign language first and foremost to communicate, but also to get a different perspective on the world, not the same or similar one. The Chinese do think in a very different way than the Americans or the “Westerners” in general. Understanding where we come from, and where we are going, is a better reason to learn the language. That’s exactly why so many Chinese, Japanese and Koreans are learning English. If similarity is such a good reason to study a foreign language, then Chinese should study Japanese, and Japanese study Chinese, and nobody studies English.

Besides, the world today was, said the writer, formed largely by Europe.

Is that so?

At least I think that is a rather weak explanation of China’s growth. China’s strength comes to a large extent from its ability to learn from everyone else, including the close Asian neighbors, especially in the earlier days of its “reform and opening up”. The country is trying to basically carve a path of development of its own, for better or for worse.

I would rather that we all subscribe to the viewpoint that the study of foreign languages is not a zero-sum game. Let’s end there, and leave it as that. Let’s not sacrifice the Chinese language for German, or German for Chinese. It’s better for the students to make a choice.

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24 Responses to “German and/or Chinese?”

  1. S.K. Cheung Says:

    That is one bizarre dispute. I imagine universities offer courses and programs that their students want to take. Heck, a good university with an awesome program probably becomes a recruiting incentive. So ultimately, I would think the students, who are the consumers, would ultimately determine which programs fly, and which new programs are opened. So to me, if I were at USC, the question would be: do students want to take Chinese as a course; if we started offering it, do we have reason to believe that the demand would develop. If the answer is no and no, then there’s no point offering a CHinese course. But if the answer is yes and yes, then it should be a no-brainer. And the same should apply to the German program. BUt it doesn’t seem necessary that those two programs be mutually exclusive.

  2. Brian Barker Says:

    I see that President Obama wants everyone to learn another language, however which one should it be?

    The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish. Yet this leaves Russian, Mandarin Chinese and Arabic, out of the equation.

    It is time to move forward and discuss the subject of a common international language, taught worldwide, in all schools and in all nations.

    An interesting video can be seen at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670. A glimpse of the language can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  3. jch Says:

    Wow, is this possibly a topic that everyone here can agree on? Though SKC makes a good point – it really should be derived from student demand. With limited funds, languages with only a few people taking them should be dropped, while popular ones should be maintained.

  4. Wukailong Says:

    Agree with jch. It seems everyone is in agreement, and being a language geek myself, I’m always saddened by languages being neglected. Still, unfortunately, it’s because China is getting stronger that more people are learning the language, not necessarily because they’re attracted by it.

  5. berlinf Says:

    It is a bizarre dispute, especially when you consider the opposite direction the dispute can be going. Though I have no objection whatsoever of keeping German, Chinese should be given a chance as well. Chinese is just still “emerging” as a foreign language, but interestingly it is getting protest already.

  6. TonyP4 Says:

    Universities should not dictate which foreign languages to offer, but to meet the demand of their students and society. The demand of learning Chinese is high. 10 years ago, we did not see many high schools offer Chinese as a secondary language, but now a lot in Mass.

    China could be the most important trading country in the world esp. with the uneven distribution of natural resources/farm lands per capita in our world. If we do not understand (and not try any effort) the 20% of the world population, how can we have a peaceful world? Language/culture are barriers to overcome.

    China understands the US language and culture (via Hollywood primarily) better than the other way round.

  7. Raj Says:

    I hated being told what languages I had to learn at school. I was fairly good at French, but because my parents expected me to learn it and get good grades – personally I found it boring and annoying. I wanted to learn Spanish or Italian (Asian languages were apparently “impossible” because there wasn’t the “resource support”), but neither were offered. You couldn’t drop French until after GCSE level.

    Tony, to be honest I’m not sure that learning a basic language makes people better able to understand each other. There are citizens of other countries who were born and raised there, but have ancestors that came from elsewhere, yet are so hostile to their own countries that it is quite strange. Language can be a useful avenue to learn more, but I don’t think that “misunderstandings” about China will be resolved with more Chinese lessons.

    The answer is replacing geography with actual lessons about other countries. How does it benefit someone to learn about how Ox-bow lakes are formed if they know nothing about the other nations of the world they inhabit? Schools have their priorities all wrong, sometimes.

  8. Steve Says:

    When I was a kid, we had our choice between French, Spanish or German. Coincidentally, those were the three countries that did the most business with the USA. In the ’80s, Japanese was the hot new language. Why? Because they were becoming a business powerhouse. These days, China is the up and coming economy so it makes sense to teach a language that is spoken where many of your students might end up doing business. There is a student demand for Chinese just as there was for Japanese back in the ’80s.

    In the States, there is a stronger demand for Spanish in the west (for understandable geographic reasons) while the east is more drawn to French, which is spoken nearby in Quebec. After that, it really depends on people’s ancestry or natural interest. My niece in NJ took Italian in school because she’s part Italian, Europe is much closer than Asia, and it was offered. If I were choosing a language in California, I’d take Chinese.

    The biggest hindrance with Chinese for most western students is the lack of a phonetic alphabet. Having to memorize characters makes the language much more difficult to learn, while most European languages can be written almost immediately. Since Pinyin is only a halfway measure, to really master Chinese you must learn the characters. Students tend to gravitate towards the easiest subject unless they have a strong emotional desire to learn something more difficult.

    In the end, it has to be a zero sum game because the resources just aren’t there to offer so many languages in each school district. My guess is that Chinese will be offered more and more on the West Coast with most likely the dropping of German or Japanese. My guess would be that eventually if two are offered in the west, they’d be Spanish and Chinese, with the third being French, fourth being either Japanese or German and the fifth being German or Japanese.

    All my comments are addressed to the k12 level. Universities should base their decisions strictly on student demand.

    The universal language, if any language could have been said to be universal, has gone from Latin (the Romans) to Arabic (the Caliphate) to French (France) to English (Great Britain) and stayed with English (United States). The next change would depend on whether the major world power shifts to another country.

  9. TonyP4 Says:

    The universal language is and will be English for a long while.

    There is a huge Spanish population in California, Florida…

    I was surprised how my children can read signs like Exit at young age. It would take longer time to understand same in Chinese. They pronounced “Exit” without knowing the word. The lack of alphabets make Chinese typewriter impossible at first glance, but now folks can type as fast as same words in English esp. with the shorter hands and smaller fingers of Orientals. 🙂

    The Chinese character is an art and graphically expressive. It forces children to remember characters at a young age, so to make the brains to develop earlier. Cantonese is a rude, but very expressive language. In my college days, Taiwanese could not speak Cantonese, but I could to some extend. Most spoken language in Mandarin can be written down, but not so easy for Cantonese.

    The first emperor of China united the written language but not the oral language. The simplified Chinese language makes life easier, except for my generation.

    It is interesting to know 4,000 year Chinese scripts can be read and understood to some extend. I watched the documentary on ancient weapons and I could understand this text shown on TV.

    A Chinese expert in ancient language (before the first emperor of China or before 200 AD from my memory) was surprised he could read an ancient language in South Africa. He did not make a big deal of it (a lot of nationalism and not politically correct) and said he only wanted to study ancient Chinese.

  10. TonyP4 Says:

    Error correction. It is S. America not Africa. Sorry as I ran out of time in editing a long text. Next time I’ll try in Chinese. 🙂

  11. little Alex Says:

    Aber die deutsche Sprache ist eine schoene Sprache…

    I thought USC is a private university and therefore has more money than the public universities? Surely it can keep both…?

    @Brian Baker
    Doesn’t Australia’s current prime minister speak Chinese? Quite well, too, iirc.

  12. Oli Says:

    Die deutsche Sprache ist nicht eine schoene Sprache, es ist eine technisch gelungene Sprache. Meine meinung nach, sind franzoesisch, italienisch und mandarin viel eleganter im Gegensatz und im Vergleich.

  13. William Huang Says:

    I agree with Raj (#7) on both points. First, not everybody can just pick any language and get on with it. Personal preference definitely has a lot to do with how you can master it. You won’t do well in something you don’t like. Second, with the information so widely available in so many different languages and the fact that learning a second language is never easy, you are much better off to stick to the one that you can master. This way, your chance of knowing one particular country or culture is much increased instead being end up with learning neither the language nor country.

  14. Wukailong Says:

    @Oli: German is indeed not that “schoen”. On the other hand, German was Heidegger’s and language of choice, so there must be something to it, and any language that produces words like Elektrizität and Präsident is worth paying attention to.

  15. Wukailong Says:

    I think both Raj and TonyP4 has a point. As long as Chinese remains a language mostly known by people in China, a lot of indigenous opinions will never be heard in the international arena. On the other hand, even if a larger share of people abroad read Chinese, it still wouldn’t mean they would accept what they read.

    I think one has to understand the basic ideological background of a country to truly come to terms with it. In China, that includes what happened the last 150 years and how people interpret this part of history.

  16. Charles Liu Says:

    It seems USC’s decision was due to budget cut and student demand.

    But again, scapegoating the Chinese [language] is more emotionally satisfying.

  17. FOARP Says:

    @Charles Liu – Yeah, that’s right, it’s probably because the NED and the CIA have been funnelling money to USC through back-door means and are pulling the plug on German in an effort to rouse people against China . . . once again you have exposed a dastardly anti-China plot!

  18. TonyP4 Says:

    #9. I mean ‘Spanish-speaking’. Too many mistakes as I rushed for dinner or just getting old. 🙂

  19. Raj Says:

    William (13), absolutely. Although there has to an element of telling people what to learn at school (you can’t opt out of Maths, domestic literature/language, basic science, history, etc), I think the approach in all schools should be that pupils should learn a foreign language. What it is should be more demand based.

    After I left school, I met a new teacher there who ran a Japanese “culture” class on Thursday afternoons (Thursday afternoon was always put aside for “activities”). She was always over-subscribed and despite the fact that the Japanese language element was the only teaching bit, the students liked that part especially. I compared this to the lack-luster interest in French, which was forced down our throats. Not to suggest everyone would love Japanese if that was compulsory, but it was clear that there were languages they wanted to learn but weren’t allowed to in normal teaching hours.

    Children know what they like, so you might as well try to channel that enthusiasm where possible. You can’t always ensure every child gets to study whichever language they like if you’re going to have a fixed number of permanent staff – demand will increase and decrease across the years. But I think it is very important to offer at least two modern languages, or three if you include French (I don’t hate French/France, but I think it’s not popular enough to deserve a place on a short-list with just one other subject). You can have a set number of places each year, but there should be a choice.

  20. Oli Says:

    @Wukailong 14

    Die “Schoenheit” der deutschen Sprache liegt nicht im Eleganz sondern in den Technischen Gelungenheit der Sprache, genauso wie mit der Bauhaus Architekturstil, Utilitarismus oder IKEA.

    Anstatt Heidegger leser ich lieber Guenter Grass oder Hermann Hesse, besonders wenn ich nicht einschlafen moechte.


  21. Wukailong Says:

    @Oli: 😀

  22. little Alex Says:

    “Die deutsche Sprache ist nicht eine schoene Sprache, es ist eine technisch gelungene Sprache. Meine meinung nach, sind franzoesisch, italienisch und mandarin viel eleganter im Gegensatz und im Vergleich.”

    Well, as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Et de gustibus non est disputandum.

    “Anstatt Heidegger leser ich lieber Guenter Grass oder Hermann Hesse, besonders wenn ich nicht einschlafen moechte.”

    Nicht Rilke und Goethe?

  23. heiheianan Says:

    Universities don’t generally dictate what languages students can choose. High and elem schools kinda do this, though. They did so before, but with the cost of tuition rising, and with fierce competition from improved junior colleges, students call more shots. That is what happened at USC. At USC, and surely at most other schools, they build disciplines (like their MBA program) not because they think it’s such a good idea, but because it is lucrative. Then too, Chinese is hotter than fish grease! Everyone wants to learn.

    Arabic and Chinese are growing fast. Chicago has the largest secondary/elementary Chinese language program in the country, and it’s the 3rd largest city. Pretty interesting considering that 10 years ago almost no schools in Chicago offered Chinese.

    I live in Flannery O’Connor, Florida. Here there is a Chinese class at the local high school, but they don’t have (maybe cannot afford?) a Chinese teacher, so they use DVD’s and VHS. I shit you not. If that is not an example of the growth of Chinese, then I’m Milton Berle. There is definitely a hunger for Chinese out there.

  24. Philip Gonchoff Says:

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