Tongue-Tied: The Future of Mandarin Chinese as a Foreign Language in the Age of Trump

In the 21st century, the study of Mandarin Chinese as a foreign language has enjoyed a meteoric rise. As the official language of the world’s most populous country, as well as the mother tongue of a large portion of an extensive Chinese diaspora, it is the world’s most spoken language. It is also the second most widely used language on the Internet. Thanks to China’s two-decade rise to prominence on the world stage, the community of Mandarin learners has expanded far beyond the descendants of Chinese immigrants or diplomats and businesspeople undergoing specialized language training, but into classrooms across the globe.

Those who promote, teach, or learn Mandarin Chinese often view the language and its accompanying cultural and political baggage with a mix of admiration and suspicion. Recent research on Mandarin Chinese education in the West shows how political rhetoric on China thus influences Mandarin language learning; in a 2014 study by UCL Institute of Education linguist Miguel Perez-Milans, Mandarin students stated that they were driven to study the language in order to engage with a powerful country and increase their chances of finding a good job in an economy dominated by the Chinese: sentiments which were echoed in other contemporary studies of Mandarin learners.

Theresa Board and Kathryn Tinsley’s 2013 and 2014 studies on Britain’s language education programs revealed that learners viewed Mandarin Chinese as a “code” to crack. In these studies, it was found that in language programs, Mandarin Chinese was presented as prestigious and mysterious: a tool for engaging with a global economic and political leader and a key to understanding an ancient, “almost alien” culture. Either way, Mandarin Chinese is portrayed as difficult to master, and the happy few who are able to master it are painted as clever, daring, and ahead of the curve.

In the West, a veneer of orientalism is evident in the political discourses that underpin Mandarin education. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic cast Mandarin education programs as ways to engage with China and help students “catch up” with urban Chinese students who, per the OECD PISA league tables, now outpace them in numerous subjects.

In the United States, schools have rushed to institute Mandarin programs and promote adult language learning. In September 2015, President Obama announced the “1 Million Strong” initiative, similar to the one announced in 2015 by former Chancellor George Osborne in Britain, which would increase the total number of U.S. Mandarin learners to 1,000,000 by 2020.

“In the West, a veneer of orientalism is evident in the political discourses that underpin Mandarin education. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic cast Mandarin education programs as ways to engage with China and help students “catch up” with urban Chinese students who, per the OECD PISA league tables, now outpace them in numerous subjects.”

In the U.K., the Cameron government, much like the Obama administration, emphasized the economic utility of Mandarin Chinese, seizing on popular fears that Beijing would soon outpace Britain — a fear which, ironically, fueled the vote to exit the European Union. As countries across the West pivot away from globalization and globalism, one must consider the future of Mandarin Chinese education, especially in the U.S. and U.K., which, despite recent gains, still lag far behind other countries in language learning — in no small part due to English’s dominance in media, technology, politics, academia, and culture.

However, the chief problem with many contemporary academic studies on Mandarin education is that they have not kept pace with the spurn of globalism evidenced by the second half of 2016. What will become of foreign language education now? How will Mandarin Chinese fit into the global foreign language marketplace in the new world order?

Although both the U.S. and the U.K. have used the ballot box to push back against globalism, the two countries are taking different approaches to their relationships with China. While President-Elect Donald Trump’s statements on trade and foreign policy frequently cast China as an economic and political boogeyman, the U.K.’s prime minister Theresa May has made efforts to make nice with Beijing after a tense introduction earlier this year. If the British government works to continue its “golden era” of Chinese relations and improve trade relations post-Brexit, Mandarin education — and the cultural and political motivations for pursuing it — may take on a new urgency.

“Although both the U.S. and the U.K. have used the ballot box to push back against globalism, the two countries are taking different approaches to their relationships with China.”

The same scenario is unlikely to apply to the United States. President-Elect Trump has taken a far more aggressive stance on China, doubling down in a controversial phone call with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-Wen. Mark Thiessen of the Washington Post views this as a signal that Trump will not “kowtow” to China, creating further distance between the two countries. On the domestic front, his appointee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, favors decentralization and deregulation of schools, which may reduce financial and political support for the development of language education programs nationwide. It is unclear whether Trump would extend support for Obama’s “1 Million Strong” initiative to swell the U.S.’s ranks of Mandarin learners by 2020, though it seems unlikely since he has indicated his intent to slash the Department of Education’s budget and has expressed disapproval of Common Core and other national curriculum programs.

In both the U.S. and the U.K.’s ballot box, suspicion of China has trumped admiration. Whether this suspicion will sustain or stymie Mandarin Chinese education — and foreign language education in general — will depend heavily on which way political winds blow. While individual learners’ attitudes are unlikely to shift overnight, the next cohort of Mandarin learners, and foreign language learners in general, will hear a very different tune from teachers and policy makers.

Image: EasyMandarin Chinese School Behind Jing’an Temple (Wikimedia Commons)


Jocelyn Spencer is a graduate of Wesleyan University and University College London, Institute of Education. She specializes academically in Chinese history and politics and in language education policy. While studying for her MA in London, she was a project leader and intern for the think tank Project for the Study of the 21st Century, for which she continues to volunteer in the United States. She currently works for a private equity firm in New York City.

 

One comment

  • It would not be a surprise to find a reduction in Chinese enrollments in the U.S. as a result of the substitution of suspicion for admiration. In the early 20th C, German was the most-taught foreign language, reflecting schools’ concern with integrating German immigrants (and German-speaking communities in the U.S.) in the education enterprise. Enrollment levels plummeted when the U.S. entered WWI and several states outlawed speaking and teaching the language, fined individuals for using it on the telephone, and the like. These laws were overturned in the 1923 Supreme Court decision, Meyer v. Nebraska. As the Hispanic population grew, Spanish has grown to become the most-taught foreign language, for similar reasons. Arabic and Chinese, however, have been promoted primarily to support American competence internationally, not as an effort to integrate ethnic minorities. Arabic surged after 9/11 and is likely to subside somewhat as Iraq fades from memory. Chinese is likely to find itself in similar circumstances as Arabic and Russian.

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