A good reason to learn Chinese
Like many, I believe that China will be the next superpower in the global economy. China is the most populous country (1.3 billion). It has the fastest-growing economy (over 10 percent annual growth since 1978) and has an active political outreach campaign to make allies and secure access to scarce resources.
To be friends with this emerging superpower, we need to build relationships based on trust, cooperation and respect. The key to developing trust and building bridges is communication, and the key to communicating effectively is to understand each other's languages.
By learning key words and phrases, my 3-year-old daughter will be able to show respect to other Chinese in the United States -- 50,000-plus adopted and 3.4 million of Chinese descent living here -- and to 1.3 billion Chinese overseas that might be visitors here on business or politics, or hosts when she visits China.
When Mandy goes to Shanghai (my generation went to Europe, but the future is in China) on vacation with my wife and me or on exchange with her school's program as a teenager, I would expect her to be conversant (not fluent) in the language based on her education. Schools in our area are offering Chinese-language courses, and I would expect most exemplary schools to have some kind of Chinese program. And therefore I would expect Mandy to be conversant as a teenager.
When I graduated from the University of Michigan, with a B.A. in economics and an MBA in marketing and international business, I decided to hold off on my career to invest the summer traveling to China. It was one of the best summers of my life. I was conversant in Chinese, which allowed me to build relationships and trust with many Chinese people. Most of our meaningful conversations were in English, but my Chinese proficiency allowed the Chinese to see that I cared about their culture. This was particularly important to me as an ABC (American-born Chinese), as I was expected to know and embrace our culture. The Chinese students, and professional and business leaders, shared a lot about their people, history, likes and dreams. To this day, I do not see the Chinese people as the next Cold War enemy; I see them as friends -- real people with real dreams.
Exploding a few myths:
» You do not need to be a visionary or business leader to see the logic of this thesis.
» Chinese does not have to be a difficult language to learn (at least to be conversant in).
» You do not have to be rich or special to learn this language.
There are many reasons to learn Chinese. Some programs emphasize that learning Chinese and other foreign languages helps a child's brain develop -- especially at an early age. Some career counselors and professors argue that you can earn a lot of money by associating yourself with the economic juggernaut known as China. Last, don't forget the perk of being able to order dim sum with authority.
I believe the new world order will depend on how much we cooperate vs. compete. Cooperation is based on understanding, trust and communication, which are based on learning the other one's language. In the next 20 years, the United States will no longer be the only superpower. As this hegemony shifts, we need to consider other countries in addition to our own. We need to embrace foreign peoples, cultures, languages, values and economies. The largest and most important player is China. Learn Chinese!
Chris Lin is the author of "Mandy and Pandy Say, "'Ni Hao Ma?'" which is the first in a series of books to help children learn Chinese.