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Society & Culture

Language and U.S. National Interests

Oct 06, 2016
  • Nathaniel Ahrens

    Executive Director, American Mandarin Society and Director of China Affairs, University of Maryland

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when if someone mentioned that they were going to study in China, they would be met with raised eyebrows and a quizzical look. As recently as the mid-nineties, there were only just over 1,000 Americans studying in China. Contrast that with now, two decades later, where over 15,000 students study in China every year.

Having more Americans who have a working fluency in the Chinese language, an understanding and appreciation of Chinese history and culture, and have extended on-the-ground living and working experience in China is critical to America’s future peace and prosperity.
And yet despite the large numbers of Americans who have studied in Greater China, as we enter the “Pacific Century,” America’s government agencies, corporations, academic institutions, think tanks, and civil society organizations are still facing a serious talent deficit of Americans with professional Mandarin Chinese language capabilities. While China sends over 300,000 students annually to study in the U.S., the U.S. still lacks a critical mass of scholars and businesspeople who speak, read, and write Mandarin Chinese and understand the Chinese cultural context necessary for effective engagement, dialogue, and negotiation. This is due not to a lack of Americans going to China to study, but rather the number who can keep up their skills when they return.
While efforts to encourage Americans to study in China are increasingly effective, returnees from such study face the daunting challenge of maintaining (let alone advancing) these skills as they embark on diverse and demanding careers. The demands of the workweek overwhelm individuals’ best intentions to maintain language fluency and their skills rapidly deteriorate to the point of Chinese becoming something they “used to know.”
While this is frustrating on a personal level, as no one likes the feeling of his or her language skills slipping away, it is also a serious problem in terms of U.S. national interest.
Language is more than just a tool: it is a framework through which we assess and engage with the world. As the Chinese language skills of Americans atrophy, so too does the ability of these Americans to effectively understand developments, motivations, and situations in China.  These now-former speakers and readers of Chinese are much less likely to wade though Chinese government documents and primary sources, choosing instead to skim secondary or tertiary analysis, which can lead to inaccurate assumptions and strategic mistakes. The longer these views ossify, the more siloed and limited our policy options become.
Trying to understand China and to keep abreast of its rapidly changing political, economic, and social fabric is difficult enough for those fluent in Chinese. The Chinese system is arguably more opaque now than any other time in the last 30 years.  At the same time, the sheer volume of information coming out of China has never been higher.  The vast majority of this information never gets translated into English. Moreover, to effectively filter this material requires a working facility in the language and a well-informed historical and cultural context and framework. This framework cannot be static; it requires constant updating and adjusting. For instance, someone who studied Chinese in the mid-nineties and has since let their language skills slip has no way of really understanding the internal dynamics and import of social media in China.
And while many government employees are able to pass language exams when they enter government service (many of them simply being taught the vocabulary to pass the test), their language skills also rapidly drop off. Most of them never regain their original skill level, even though some are able to cram enough to pass their periodic language proficiency tests.
Having more Americans fluent in Chinese is also in China’s interest. While to a certain degree, especially at the government-to-government level, one could argue that China has benefited from the United States essentially outsourcing the cultural-linguistic portion of the relationship to China, if more Americans were able to regularly and consistently engage in Chinese with Chinese peers and access primary source information, we would see a substantial increase in mutual understanding and trust.
The American Mandarin Society (AMS) is one such organization dedicated to this effort. Founded in 2011, AMS is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization composed of thousands of Americans who studied Chinese in Greater China, speak, read, and write Chinese, and are back in the United States professionally engaged with China. AMS is focused on helping these Americans maintain and further enhance their Mandarin Chinese language skills, stay engaged in political and economic discourse in the region, and build the professional networks that will allow them to engage in the vital work of strengthening the United States’ ties with Asia in the 21st century.
It is all too easy to look at headline numbers of Americans studying in China and think that our job is done. Echoing and broadening the call to action posed by Michael Oksenberg’s famous 1977 National Security Council memo to Zbigniew Brzezinski, we need to cultivate talent so that 25-30 years from now we have sufficient numbers of Americans across the professions who can effectively engage with China.
In short, a much more concerted effort needs to be made to ensure that these hard earned language skills are retained and nurtured. This requires greater attention and investment today from American and Chinese governments, corporations, foundations, and educational institutions.
The economic, political, security, and social interactions between the United States and China are only going to get more challenging, and the demands on our leaders in business, government, and civil society are going to increase. Investing in the future stewards of U.S.-China relations is a strategic imperative—the American Mandarin Society’s commitment to supporting these Americans is rooted in the conviction that prosperity, stability, and peace in the entire Asia-Pacific region depend on it.
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