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.