Ready with my fusion breakfast of coffee and jianbing, I settled in to read Wednesday’s China Daily. I found an Opinion article particularly thought-provoking, entitled “Benefits of Quick-Start Language Learning” by Colin Speakman. Speakman introduced the article by stating Ling Zi of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference asserted at this year’s conference that English lessons should no longer be given in Chinese kindergartens. I was stunned -- ever since my first trip to China, students in China have impressed me with their command of English in comparison to my Chinese. I’ve always attributed the discrepancy to their early start with English in comparison to my late start with Mandarin as a Sophomore in college. Why would China’s leaders propose to take away from its students such an advantage, especially with English learning in China progressing at such a fast rate?
Apparently, Ling suggests that English teaching should start in high school for students to be given enough time to develop their Chinese language skills first. Speakman notes that the National People’s Congress has increasingly noted that China’s traditions and history need to be better preserved rather than tossed aside in the pursuit of economic progress as they were during the Cultural Revelotion. In fact, China’s history and culture are key to tourism and thus themselves a money-maker. Yet Speakman argues that even though the goal of cultural preservation is noble, it need not be accomplished at the sake of English learning.
It does not follow that learning a second language will eat into the learning time of the first. On the contrary, learning more than one language can increase language skills generally and speed progress. In learning a foreign language, one also learns about a foreign culture. Having Chinese citizens knowledgeable about their own culture and a foreign culture and understanding the similarities and differences is a worthy goal. But the most effective way to teach children a second language is to throw them in at "the shallow end" at an early age. It is like teaching a young person to swim. Wait till the child has grown old enough to develop a fear of water and it becomes harder. Put them into a pool as a baby and they literally take to it like a duck to water….The problem that would result from delaying the study of English in Chinese schools until high school, is that it would become another examination subject - just another subject to cram for - and as such would be unlikely to produce students confident and fluent in using English afterwards.
I absolutely agree. I’ve been again amazed by the improving English levels of Beijing’s residents, and I haven’t heard anything about these same excelling students failing in their Chinese. The mind is able to learn so much at a young age, that absorbing multiple languages isn’t problematic at all. Learning at the high school and college level is entirely different - it’s extremely challenging, and I would argue rarely effective. This is particularly true without the opportunity for immersion in a country that speaks the language one is learning. With the limitations in travel and money for study abroad for Chinese students, such an opportunity is rare and limited to children of wealthy families. In my mind, starting English early in Chinese education is an equalizer and a buoy to the country’s economy that needs English for commerce. In fact, the business case for language at a young age is so compelling I’m surprised that any of China’s leaders would dare to make such a proposition. I can only hope Ling’s proposal never comes to fruition.
Another question that crossed my mind - why aren’t most American students taught foreign language(s) from an early age, still? I don’t need to state the obvious, but our world is more global every day. It is crucial that our children learn languages, and from an early age. Is it freedom of choice, to choose the language you want to study, that causes educators to wait on this aspect of schooling? While I would accept a student should be able to select an additional language to study at any time, I think it behooves Americans to study from kindergarten age foreign language, perhaps selected for America’s primary trading partners or percentage of the world’s population that speaks a given language.
What do you think? Quick-start language for all, or should tradition win out?