Friday, August 27, 2004

two conclusions

well, i've been home for a week now. finally my mind is catching up to my body. i am no longer having dreams where i am in china, am no longer wondering where i am when i wake up, etc. i can't say i am not constantly still thinking about my experience though...i am. it is in the front of my mind, all the time. and there seem to be two important lessons i learned there.

the first is easy--i wrote about it in a very early posting...outdoor exercise is important to health. this seemed to be a daily necessity for so many of the people in china...they *needed* to get their exercise every day, the same way they needed food and sleep. and this isn't fancy team-sport exercise either. they aren't in softball leagues, members of a gym, and aren't part of biking or swimming clubs. mainly they just go do whatever they want to do: walk around the track, hit a badminton birdie with a child or friend, shoot baskets, do stretching exercises, ride a bike. the sort of spontaneous activity that gives them freedom. freedom from memberships, expensive fees for recreation leagues, scheduled game-times and even practices, etc.

the other lesson is about the language. i have decided that it is shocking the way the american educational system does so little to promote the value of studying a the study of a second language. i know that most high schools have a 2- or 3-year language requirement, but still, that is too little too late...and many students treat is simply as a requirement that they need to fulfill, that's all.

every educational theorist knows that the most effective language learning must happen early and must be reinforced for years. let me be blunt: EVERY CHINESE STUDENT STARTS LEARNING ENGLISH AT THE AGE OF 10 IF NOT EARLIER. every single one. at the age of 10. some of them start when they are infants, but i won't pretend that's common. it is common though for students in 1st and 2nd grade to go to a language school on saturday afternoons. i met one such 5 year-old girl--her name was tina ["T - I - N - A"]--and i had lunch with her and her aunt and grandfather the last saturday i was wuhan, and we visited until she had to go to english class at 3:30. but back to the point. why don't all americans learn language earlier? why isn't it a cultural value? why is our country and our educational system so focused on inwardness? why aren't we looking at the outside world?

here's a politicized example that i myself am surprised i'm making. and i'm only using this example because merely saying "we should learn a foreign language because it shows we value the world outside america" seems like an argument that arrogant self-absorbed americans can dismiss too easily. so this example shows the human toll of being a inward-looking example has to do with the tragedy that happened on September 11th, 2001. in the period before the tragedy, the intelligence community simply didn't have enough americans who knew arabic to prevent it. they didn't have enough agents who could translate the messages, penetrate the groups, and stop the terrorists. think about it. do you know any native-born american anywhere who has ever studied arabic? have you ever heard of it being taught in any school? why isn't anyone studying it? isn't it an important language? the political situation in the middle east has been in a threat to american stability since the post-WWII period...isn't this enough time for some Americans to be studying arabic, not just to speak it, but so we can understand the people who live in these countries?

now, getting back to chinese. why aren't more people in america studying it? why aren't any american 10 year-olds [better yet ALL american 10 year-olds] studying chinese? china is a coutry that is poised to probably take over the world economy in my lifetime, but certainly in the lifetime of today's schoolchildren. and why isn't anyone bothering to learn their language [and at the same time, their culture and their values...since this is all part of one piece]? with as much trade and business as america does with china, why aren't we learning to speak to them and understand them? i will tell you one thing, and this isn't complicated: i sat in many meetings with american and chinese teachers, where we negotiated all sort of [usually banal] details of our program, and when the chinese teachers could talk amongst themselves in chinese right in our presence, it gave them a substantial advantage in the negotiations. i can only imagine how much leverage this language differential gives chinese people in business and political deals with americans. by knowing our language, they know *us*. they know who we are--learning our language has enabled them to learn about us, all while we sit back and do relatively little to understand them.

so what is the conclusion: the conclusion is that everyone--it's never too late--should do something to close the language gap between america and the rest of the world. instead of allowing them to study and learn about us on a one-way street, we need to start learning about them. we need to start living abroad, traveling internationally as much as possible, and if you have children, or grand-children, or are friends of parents of children, we must start taking it upon ourselves to help every american to start looking outward instead of start valuing the world outside of america--especially the middle east and far east--and not just being absorbed in our small part of the world here in the western hemisphere.

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