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Thursday, March 18, 2010 01:04 am

How to say ‘What do we owe?’ in Mandarin

Local schools think about teaching China’s official language

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Two six-year-olds learn their ABCs in Mandarin and English.
PHOTO BY EUGENE H. LOUIE/MCT

If enough middle and high school students sign up for it, the Springfield and Ball-Chatham public school districts may offer instruction in Mandarin Chinese, the simplified official Chinese dialect used in the People’s Republic of China. Like so many trends, this one is so late making it to the Springfield area that one wonders whether ideas don’t travel downstate via Amtrak. The Chicago public schools have been teaching Mandarin since the latter 1990s, and today have 53 teachers in 43 schools.

One of this paper’s founding reporters spoke Mandarin fluently, a skill that she used mainly to surprise the soy sauce out of waiters in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Today, Mandarin increasingly is not just a language the Chinese use to order lunch but one that will be necessary to prevent the Chinese from eating ours, commercially speaking. As one commentator recently put it in London, “There are surely few business decisions as sensible as hiring graduates who can negotiate in the local language — and who understand what clients and regulators are saying about you when they switch out of English.”

District 186 superintendent Walter Milton reminded the press in December that teaching Mandarin to Springfield kids would help fulfill the district’s responsibility to “prepare our children for a global society.” They’ll need it. Considering how many Treasury Department IOUs the Chinese hold, not only the future but the U.S. government might be said to belong to the Chinese.

Indeed, we can ask, “Why only Mandarin?” The languages spoken in the rich pastures where Americans will make their money in the next 50 years also include Spanish, Turkish, Farsi and Hindi. As long as we are asking questions, why is the study of China bent toward the acquisition of private wealth rather than the history, literature and art of the world’s most ancient surviving civilization? Why, if businesses need Mandarin speakers, is it not businesses that are training them? And is it Mandarin-speaking salesmen and managers that we will need? Or is it intelligence agents, policy analysts and military strategists able to cope with a xenophobic military power with a 5,000-year-old chip on its shoulder?

One more thing. Qualified Mandarin teachers are as scarce around Springfield as Chaucer experts in the General Assembly. That’s why both the Springfield and the Ball-Chatham districts plan to use a new online course, called myChinese360, which connects students via the Internet to certified instructors based in Beijing who not only lecture but provide real-time tutoring.

Using myChinese360 instead of in-the-classroom teachers will be cheap. Will it also be wise? In order to teach skills to make it easier for students to someday do business with China, Ball-Chatham and District 186 will themselves be obliged to do business with China. The Communist regime is eager to accept our dollars but not at all eager to accept our values such as openness, free speech and democratic control of the state — as Google’s recent experience reminds us.

Nothing that moves on the Web in China moves without the approval of the party watchdogs who monitor all contacts between its people and what they regard as a corrupt and corrupting West. Officials in Guangdong, for instance, have banned independent reporting on the jailing of Chinese citizens protesting the government’s treatment of the 300,000 people (many of them children) who were poisoned by melamine-tainted milk. Media were ordered to only use information formally released by the authorities.

The myChinese360 inventors tout among its advantages the fact that students in this country can take virtual trips to “significant historical and modern Chinese sites.” One doubts that those sites will include places such as Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province where ethnic riots broke out last year and which has been under a clampdown ever since. The program also makes possible video chat with students in China. While it would be very educational indeed for Springfield-area students to attempt a video chat with their counterparts in China about Tiananmen Square, I wouldn’t expect they will be allowed to. (At least not in Mandarin. Chinese authorities allow much English-language content on the Web and in magazines because so few of their people can read it; say something rude to the regime in Mandarin in either of those media, however, and it likely will be blocked.)

Nothing new in this, I suppose. I studied Spanish at Springfield High in the 1960s, when Spain was still in the iron grip of Franco, and we never once were asked to translate Policía Armada. The knowing citizen will laugh, and ask, what has Truth or Right or Liberty to do with business? To which the rest of us might ask, what has training our talented young to be servants to Censorship and Oppression to do with education?

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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