The U.S. State Department has invested some $25,000 to enable me to study Mandarin Chinese. As a recipient of the NSLI-Y scholarship in high school, and then the Critical Language Scholarship in college, I lived in China for two summers with host families, studying Mandarin for nine hours a day. Tack on to that the approximately 2,000 classroom hours I spent learning Mandarin as an undergraduate, and it seems fair to say that a small fortune of resources has been invested in my Mandarin ability.
Yet even with this hefty sum, I still have strides to make in achieving fluency, and it’s unclear whether I’ll use my language skills regularly in my career. This leads me to reflect: what return on investment was the State Department hoping for? What is it that drives me to drill tones and memorize characters?
Many people are quick to point out the value of language skills in an increasingly competitive workforce. While certainly true, I am reluctant to think of the primary benefit of learning Mandarin as a financial one. The significance of the investment is best appreciated within the context of the larger ties –political, cultural and yes, economic– that bind our two countries.
Today, about 350 million Chinese students are studying English, compared to 200,000 American students studying Chinese. In 2009, President Obama sought to address this massive discrepancy by launching the “100,000 Strong Initiative” to send 100,000 American students to study abroad in China within five years. Then, in 2015, President Obama and President Xi jointly announced “1 Million Strong”, a proposal to increase the number of Americans studying Chinese to 1 million students (about 2% of the total number of U.S. students) by the year 2020. This bilateral commitment to language exchange is powerful, but the surrounding dialogue on rationale often lacks nuance.
The economic implications of language exchange are at the forefront of the conversation. Do a quick search, “Why is it important for Americans to learn Mandarin?” and the vast majority of the results emphasize creating a generation of ‘China-savvy’ American leaders ready to seize the opportunities of the burgeoning Chinese economy, slated as a destination for more than $110 billion in U.S. exports. Professor Li Quan of Renmin University put it succinctly when he said, “We are now a major economy…The world understands that China is going to be a force for a long time, so learning the language is essential.”
Some are quick to point out that the odds of Mandarin ever replacing English as the language of international business are slim to none, citing the prevalence of English globally, the high volume of Chinese students already learning English, and the difficulty non-native speakers have in learning Mandarin. Still, these skeptics will grudgingly admit that learning a foreign language has many benefits that are less quantifiable.
Language is about much more than just the ability to communicate. Foreign language study is tied to increased levels of empathy, enhanced cognitive development, and more creative insight into the human condition. Increasingly, research shows that these benefits also apply to those with exposure to multiple languages, and not just those who achieve fluency.
The skills that come with language study, especially empathy, can lead to better outcomes in business meetings and diplomatic state visits: when you come to the table speaking the others’ language, you implicitly demonstrate your desire to cooperate. In our increasingly globalized world, where U.S.-China relations continue to be a topic of chief concern, ensuring cooperation and increased understanding is more important than ever.
As a sign of the tumultuous times, earlier this year Professor Graham Allison of the Harvard Kennedy School released the book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? The ancient Greek historian Thucydides observed of the devastating Peloponnesian War that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” In the book, Allison extends Thucydides’s framework to include sixteen times over the last 500 years in which a rising power similarly threatened an established state. Of those sixteen times, war occurred in twelve: a dismaying, nay, terrifying statistic for those who adopt Allison’s view that China and the U.S. fit into this mold.
If Allison’s argument feels sensational, one need not believe in the imminent prospect of a U.S.-China war to accept that sustainable relations between the U.S. and China are crucial to a stable world order. It is also clear that the U.S. is not yet ‘comfortable’ with a rapidly rising China, as evidenced by the hedging discourse of recent administrations. President Trump’s first move with China was to brazenly refute Beijing’s ‘One China’ policy through a phone call with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, only to cave a few weeks later when he publicly affirmed his commitment to the policy on a call with President Xi. This precedent should worry even those who previously thought that diplomacy through strength was a sound approach.
A mutually beneficial future for the U.S. and China will be built upon understanding, respect and recognition. The U.S. has come a long way since President Nixon’s seminal 1972 visit, but there is still a long road ahead. Language exchange can illuminate the path – providing cultural insight and bolstering the common ground we stand on.
As an undergraduate, I interned in Washington, D.C. at a bipartisan think tank. In the first month, I attended a forum on Capitol Hill: China’s New National Security Law: What Does It Mean? I walked up the stairs of the Rayburn Senate building excited to learn from the distinguished delegation of Chinese legal scholars. Around fifty staff members, representing major Congressional offices, were also attending the forum.
An hour later, I was thinking of Thomas Jefferson’s line in a letter to his daughter: “Politics is such a torment that I would advise everyone I love not to mix with it.” Where I had been excited to watch diplomacy in action and hear dialogue between representatives from the world’s most complex and powerful nations, I had instead witnessed an hour of petty accusations, argument, and individuals constantly trying to assert their opinion, rather than listen. It was a discouraging experience, but also an enlightening one, that gave me cause to reflect on the roots and remedies of this ineffective dialogue.
When my brain protests the hours spent memorizing grammar patterns or deciphering a single paragraph, it is not the economic potential of my language skills that leads me to persist. Studying Mandarin is the most humble way I can conceive of to approach China, a nation with 5,000 years of complex history.
As a language learner, I am acutely aware of our two countries’ inter-dependency, relying on the generosity and support of native Mandarin speakers. From this vantage point, I have experienced the beauty, hospitality and profound nuance of China. Cultural exchange and Mandarin study do not provide clear-cut answers to the serious policy challenges China and the U.S. face, but my experience studying Mandarin has instilled an abiding sense of curiosity and a commitment to understanding and respect – and that’s a start.