Obama's 'learn Chinese drive' on road to reality

Ms Juanique Mcneill
Ms Juanique Mcneill

Goal to have a million Americans learning the language by 2020 achievable, say experts

By 2020, one million Americans will learn Chinese, a goal set by United States President Barack Obama to strengthen US-China ties.

"If our countries are going to do more together around the world, then speaking each other's language, truly understanding each other, is a good place to start," said Mr Obama at a joint press conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping last month.

There are an estimated 200,000 Americans studying Chinese.

STRONGER TIES

If we want strong relations with China, we need people who speak Mandarin.

MS JUANIQUE MCNEILL, a graduate student who has been on two exchange programmes to China

This new "1 Million Strong" initiative, while ambitious, is achievable, said Ms Carola McGiffert, president of non-profit group 100,000 Strong Foundation, which will oversee the project. The challenge would be raising the funds needed to push the project forward.

The strategy, Ms McGiffert said, would be to reach out to American foundations focused on primary and secondary education as well as US and Chinese corporations "looking to build a pipeline of future employees".

A recent survey by Northern Illinois University showed that a third of employers in northern Illinois are looking to hire bilingual college graduates and about 22 per cent of businesses said Mandarin is the most useful language.

The one million target is attainable, experts point out, because of the immense interest in the language. A study by the Modern Language Association of America shows that at the tertiary level, there was an 18 per cent rise in graduate enrolments in Chinese over seven years, reaching 61,055 students in 2013.

Some also point out that one million students make up less than 2 per cent of the 55 million students at the primary and secondary level in the US.

A top priority for 100,000 Strong is to develop Chinese curriculum standards that can be used by school systems and teachers in the US and a steering group of experts is being put together to oversee this.

Many schools currently use curricula developed by education consultants "but there are schools that don't know which curriculum is effective, and it's a barrier to starting a Chinese language programme", said Ms McGiffert.

The foundation, launched in 2013 to strengthen US-China relations through exchanges and language studies, also hopes to double the number of Chinese language teachers in the US over the next five years.

Through the support of the Chinese government, there are about 500 Chinese language teachers in the US, who teach at the Confucius institutes or Confucius classrooms in schools.

The programme is similar to Germany's Goethe-Institut or France's Alliance Francaise.

The goal, however, would be to train Americans who have a high proficiency of Mandarin to become teachers, said Ms McGiffert, whose organisation is no stranger to lofty goals.

In 2009, Mr Obama announced the 100,000 Strong initiative which aimed to send 100,000 American students to study in China in five years. The goal was met in 2014.

Graduate student Juanique McNeill, 23, who has been on two exchange programmes to China, belongs to this rare group of Mandarin speakers in the US. When she first went to Beijing in 2008, she said she spoke no Mandarin. She was also the first in her family to have left the US.

"It wasn't something I had ever thought of doing, but my adviser encouraged me to go," said Ms McNeill, who practises Mandarin by chatting with friends in China using messaging and calling app WeChat.

"That first trip influenced me for sure," said the master's student in international studies who is focusing on China.

A big supporter of the "1 Million Strong" initiative, Ms McNeill said: "It's really good for our economy and where we plan on going with foreign relations in the future... if we want strong relations with China, we need people who speak Mandarin."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2015, with the headline 'Obama's 'learn Chinese drive' on road to reality'. Print Edition | Subscribe