Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Benefits of quick-start language learning

By Colin Speakman (China Daily) Updated: 2012-03-21 07:58

To my eyes, one of the most surprising proposals tabled at this year's Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference was that lessons in the study of English should no longer be given in Chinese kindergartens.

The proposal came from Ling Zi, a CPPCC member and respected deputy chair of the Chinese Confucius Academy. Although not part of her formal proposal, Ling also stated she believes that English and other foreign languages should only be studied beginning in high school to make sure that students are given enough time to develop their Chinese language skills.

This thinking brings into conflict two goals that need not be in conflict.

It has been well reported in recent meetings of the National Peoples' Congress that Chinese culture in its traditional forms needs to be better preserved, whether this be historic buildings, the ancient skills often possessed by ethnic groups, or a focus on promoting cultural tourism in China, both for nationals and to foreign visitors.

However, another important goal, stated by various Chinese authorities is increasing the percentage of the population that can speak English and plans for a significant increase in English-speaking staff in China's museums, at subway stations and airports and in hotels have been announced. This makes sense with the growing number of international visitors that are being attracted to see China's culture firsthand.

Meanwhile, the study of Mandarin is growing significantly, both outside China and by students coming to study in the world's second largest economy, and certainly Western business executives know the maxim: You can buy in China in any language, but to sell you need the local language. However, although Mandarin may well be the business language of the future, it will take time, and today the reality remains that English is still the language of international business and China's continued economic development will benefit from more citizens learning English.

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. In Western countries, where mixed marriages are more common, research shows that a baby growing up in a bi-lingual home readily learns the two different languages of its parents and can identify with each. It is a natural process.

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.

Many Chinese parents already understand the benefits of a more international exposure for their children. That is a factor behind the growth of Chinese students choosing to study abroad in English speaking countries at university level. The simple fact is that many parents still want to give their children a head start in learning English, viewing it as a crucial skill for their children's future careers, and so they will resort to paying for private tuition if lessons are not readily available from an earlier age in the Chinese school system. That would be a divisive policy because it would deny English language skills to children whose parents simply cannot afford such extras.

China's overall economic development would be better served if all children have this opportunity without undue personal cost. There is no trade-off between learning one's own language and a foreign language; nor between learning about one's own culture and a foreign culture.

The author is an economist and director of China Programs at CAPA International Education, a USA-UK based organization that cooperates with Capital Normal University and Shanghai international Studies University.

(China Daily 03/21/2012 page9)

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