The Politics of Foreign Language Education


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"Plastics" was the classic, one-word, unsolicited career advice offered to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. Fast-forward several decades, and that word today could well be “Mandarin."


We’re bombarded almost daily with references to the economic rise of China.

 

  • The White House hosts a state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao, aka, “America’s banker.”

  • Chinese automaker Chang’an Auto has entered the U.S. market and is bringing jobs to suburban Detroit.

There may be no classroom subject more affected by the vagaries of current affairs than the study of foreign language. Choices and offerings are influenced by trends in national security, global economics, and prevailing academic beliefs, says Emily Spinelli, Ph.D., executive director of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese in Walled Lake.

Over time, she says, Latin, the standard for a classical education, gave way to modern European languages during World Wars I and II. Russian became a must-learn during the Cold War. And Japanese, popular in the 1990s thanks to that country’s then-surging economy, has been surpassed by Chinese study, as economic fortunes shift.

Among entering college freshmen taking Advance Placement (AP) exams, Mandarin Chinese is catching up to German, the College Board reports. Whatever the lingua franca du jour, many educators just urge: learn a language — any language. But that’s been a perennial tough sell in a country comfortably buffered on two sides by oceans and on the third by another primarily English-speaking nation.

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