Houston public schoolchildren will have the opportunity to learn the world’s most spoken language in a new school that opens August 2012.
The new magnet school will follow HISD’s nationally recognized and highly successful model of dual language immersion, with new students taught nearly all their subjects in the foreign language by expert teachers. As the students progress through grade levels, the percentage of time spent immersed in the foreign language drops from 80-90% in kindergarten and first grade until 4th or 5th grade, when the students are taught roughly half in the foreign language and half in English. National research as well as HISD experience has shown that, once fully bilingual, students taught in this manner outperform their peers not only in the foreign language but in other subjects, too.
The state of foreign language instruction in America is poor – and the timing of this problem could not be worse in a rapidly changing multicultural world. While over 2/3 of the world’s population speaks two or more languages, most Americans are in a shrinking minority who can’t communicate with anyone that doesn’t speak their own language. And while English is still the world’s pre-eminent language for business and technology (and in my opinion always will be), leadership and success in the 21st century require effective communication and sharing of ideas with others. A declining percentage of American elementary schools offer foreign language instruction, dropping from 31% in 1997 to only 25% today – despite an overwhelming body of research showing that foreign language fluency improves achievement in a student’s primary language and in other subjects. Learning a second language makes you smarter.
America’s lack of bilingualism is not just a problem for those of us who want to be successful in the 21st century – it’s a matter of national security. A 2007 report from the National Academy of Sciences warns, “The pervasive lack of knowledge of foreign cultures and languages threatens the security of the United States and as well its ability to compete in the global marketplace and produce an informed citizenry.”
For most Texans, fluency in Spanish is a wise and practical choice, given Texas’ geographical and economic position as America’s gateway to Central and South America. But just as America trades with many other countries that are outside the Spanish-speaking world, we must offer our children other important world languages as well.
Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world by far. Chinese, in several dialects, is spoken by 1.5 billion people in China and an additional 800 million outside China, making Chinese an excellent choice as a foreign language for students wanting to gain an edge in a highly competitive world. And while almost 300 million Chinese are learning English at this moment, only 56,000 Americans are learning Chinese. The opportunity to be one of those rare Mandarin-speaking Americans offers truly extraordinary advantages in a competitive college and workforce environment.
Fluency in Mandarin Chinese is also beneficial for another reason. The United States has become the most popular country in the world for a very interesting group of immigrants – Chinese millionaires. According to a study of 980 Chinese with assets of more than $1.6 million which was cited in the Wall Street Journal last month, 60% of Chinese millionaires are either considering emigrating from China to another country or already have done so. The most popular destination is the US, where 40% of Chinese prefer to emigrate. According to the study, the reasons they are emigrating are first, education quality for their children, and second, security of their assets. The fact that such a huge percentage of China’s most successful people want to bring their families and their assets to America presents a great opportunity for both countries – and frankly, reminds us of what America is – a melting pot based on freedom and opportunity.
Texas happens to be a primary beneficiary of these trends. China is Texas’ 2nd largest export market, responsible for over $10 billion in exports in 2010. This enormous figure is increasing at a fast pace. In the last ten years, Texas’ exports to China have increased almost 7 times faster than exports to the rest of the world. Children who learn the Chinese language will have a rare and valuable skill in the 21st century, and we intend to make HISD a leader in these opportunities.
Can this effort produce significant results? We need only look back twelve years, when Robert Davis, now Executive Director of Chinese Language and Culture Initiatives for the College Board, approached Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Paul Vallas to suggest it was unacceptable that the world’s most spoken language was not taught anywhere within the nation’s third largest school system. Vallas agreed and hired Davis to start a Chinese program. Twelve years later, Mandarin Chinese is taught in 43 schools in Chicago (with 30 more on the waiting list to add programs); and on any given day, over 13,000 students in Chicago are learning Chinese. In fact, almost a quarter of the 56,000 Americans learning Chinese are in Chicago public schools. Houston can and should follow that example.
We should do so because it’s good for kids to learn a foreign language fluently. That means not only offering opportunities like the new Mandarin Chinese immersion school, but expanding and changing the way we teach foreign languages in all schools. Children easily learn a foreign language as long as quality instruction starts at the earliest grade levels, and provided every day. We have to make room for foreign language if we value it, which will mean looking at our school day and the other ways we spend our time – and have a serious discussion about priorities.
But for today, at least, we are focused on one thing – expanding HISD’s highly effective and very popular dual language immersion schools into a new language. And starting next Fall, Houston children will be able to say “Nihao!” to a wide new world of opportunity.