Should Your Kids Learn to Speak Really Bad Mandarin?

by Bill Murphy Jr.
Originally Published: 

First, let’s go back in time 51 years. The Cold War raged, the Communists had just built the Berlin Wall, and President Kennedy headed to Germany for a massive speech in front of about 450,000 people.

In a stunning statement of solidarity, he told them in Boston-accented German: “I am a jelly doughnut.”

Yes, I know that this makes no sense; it’s because while Kennedy intended to say, “Ich bin Berliner,” which as you might imagine means, “I am a Berliner,” or “I am from Berlin,” he in fact said, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” The addition of an indefinite article changed the definition of the noun at the end of his sentence to a sweet German breakfast pastry.

Second, let’s go back to last summer, when my nephew Henry, who is 15 years old, worked as a counselor-in-training at a children’s camp in New Hampshire. He arrived one day to find that there was a new camper—a little girl from China, who didn’t speak English. His fellow counselors were trying unsuccessfully to communicate with her with pantomime and pictures, so Henry walked over to help.

“Rènshi ni hen gaoxing,” he said to the little girl. Apparently that means something like, “Nice to meet you.”

“Ni jùyou meiguo kouyin kepà,” she replied. According to Henry, this means: “You have a terrible accent.”

Until I started thinking about this article, I had no idea that Henry speaks Mandarin at all, but I’ve since learned that he spent three years—7th, 8th, and 9th grades—studying it, having made the choice between that language and Spanish. His proficiency level isn’t great, as he told me. The little girl at camp was correct and his accent is “really bad, very American.” Notwithstanding his diction difficulties, however, he was at least able to explain a few basic things to the girl—what time lunch was, and the like—and make her feel a little more welcome.

Okay, now we can talk about Zuckerberg.

You might have seen this the other day, and it’s worth checking out the video. While Facebook is banned in China, Zuckerberg is a member of the advisory board for Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management, and he sat for a staged interview as part of a presentation at the university.

His accent is apparently just as bad as Henry’s, but Zuckerberg has his own reasons for learning the language. These include the fact that his wife is Chinese-American, and her mother doesn’t speak English, along with the simple challenge of learning it. Of greater interest to Facebook shareholders, however, is that speaking Mandarin suggests a respect for China and its culture—and perhaps with it, the idea of unbanning the site in China and potentially adding more than 1 billion new members.

So, have we reached the point at which kids who study Italian or French are doing themselves a disservice? Maybe one could make a different case for Spanish, given the rising number of Americans who speak that language first, but how often does German or ancient Greek come up?

Trends among parents and schools suggest that many people now believe that if your kids don’t study Chinese languages, they’ll fall behind. While up-to-date data is a bit elusive, the number of American students studying Mandarin has grown quickly. As of 2000, there were roughly 5,000 students of Chinese languages nationwide in kindergarten through 12th grade; by 2006 the number had risen to about 51,000. In 2009, the number of high school students alone was 61,000. And it’s not difficult to find people suggesting that doing so can open opportunities.

“I hesitate to say that American children should be compelled to learn Chinese,” said David L. Woronov, a Boston-based corporate attorney who assists Western companies doing business in China (and vice versa), “but I think they should be encouraged—strongly encouraged—to learn Mandarin.”

The number-one reason is simply commercial, he continued. But, few elementary and middle school students who wind up studying Mandarin will probably go into international business, and most won’t ever even visit China.

Going back to Zuckerberg’s reasons for studying the language, however, I think there’s a less-often articulated argument in favor. It’s not as if Zuckerberg would be trying to negotiate the finer points of introducing Facebook to China, of course, but demonstrating interest in the language and an affinity for the culture simply shows respect and rapport, like Kennedy did in Berlin.

Mistaking a breakfast dessert for a native of Berlin didn’t really matter in Kennedy’s case, because the German audience understood what he meant—and more importantly, understood the symbolism behind it. For that matter, it’s the same thing when I struggle through a bit of stammering, poorly accented French in Paris, or when my nephew has the ability to help a foreign student feel a little more at ease.

photo: flickr/jimmiehomeschoolmom

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