Blacks, Latinos, and the push to learn Chinese

I include the trailer for Speaking in Tongues because although the bilingual education debate in the United States is usually focused around Spanish speakers, the filmmakers chose to emphasize Mandarin and Cantonese and play into viewers’ perceptions of Chinese as an increasingly valuable language.

Update 9/11/12: Thanks to Racialicious for quoting me on their Tumblr. This post seems to have gotten a bit of attention there. I did not realize until this morning that I had automatically disabled comments on my posts; that has been changed.

In the past few years, the American press has written hundreds of feature stories about the push to learn Chinese, and since this is what I study, I pay close attention to these articles. Until this morning, I have not encountered an article in which the arguments for and against Chinese language learning have been so revealing about the US racial order.

Yellow peril fears are noticeably absent in this National Public Radio piece on the Chinese language mandate in Bibb County, Georgia. Asians are not a major presence in this county: according to the 2010 Census, Bibb County is 52% black, 43% white, 1.6% Asian, and just shy of 3% Hispanic or Latino of any race.

Except for a few boilerplate lines about “a Communist regime enacting its geopolitical agenda on their children” and “China and India will have 50 percent of the world GDP,” the commentary here is not about Asians, but rather about blacks and Latinos. For example, let’s take a look at this quote from a Bibb County resident, whom I assume to be white, judging from her English phonology:

“Bibb County is not known for producing the highest-achieving graduates,” says Macon resident Dina McDonald. “You’ll see that many of them can’t even speak basic English.” (emphasis mine)

Here in the bolded text you see McDonald’s language ideology, specifically her ideology about African American Vernacular English (AAVE). While sociolinguists recognize AAVE (often pejoratively referred to as Ebonics) as a rich dialect of American English in its own right, many Americans consider AAVE to be a substandard slang of the ignorant, loaded down with the twin stigmas of blackness and poverty.

When McDonald claims that Bibb County residents “can’t even speak basic English,” she is clearly not talking about immigrants who speak English as a second language. Only 3.6% of Bibb County is foreign-born, matching up well with the percentage of Asians and Latinos. McDonald’s claim is about the county’s majority black residents speaking AAVE.

Black students have to learn to speak standard American English to get ahead in a white-dominated society, and generally learn to switch between the two dialects depending on the social context. Though they may or may not speak standard American English to her, they likely speak AAVE amongst themselves, fueling this perception that they “can’t even speak basic English.”

In the next quote, she argues that some students would find Mandarin more useful than others. I do not have the tools with me to run any statistical analyses on the Census and American Community Survey data from Bibb County, but knowing what we know about black-white gaps in educational attainment, occupational mobility, and income, we can see an implicit racial division here:

McDonald herself has a ninth-grader in the public schools and says she can imagine some students going into fields where Mandarin could be useful, like international business, technology or law. But with lower achievers, she says, “Do you want to teach them how to say, ‘Do you want fries with that?’ in Mandarin?”

The article says that Georgia’s Latino population has doubled over the last Census period. In fact, the Latino population has been increasing throughout the South. Why not offer Spanish, which would be more immediately useful and relevant to students’ lives?

[...] “it is important for communities to educate our children for their future, not our past.” For that future, Dallemand says, there is no choice but Mandarin Chinese.

Dallemand seems to ignore the fact that Spanish is not just the past but the present and long-term future for Bibb County, for the South, and the US as a whole. Mexican immigration has essentially stopped, but the Latino population is still growing rapidly and the US still has strong economic, political, and military ties to Spanish-speaking Latin America. (Have we forgotten that we still hold on to a Spanish-speaking colony in the Caribbean?)

Learning a language requires learning cultural sensitivity. Furthermore, for native speakers of the world’s dominant international language, attempting a foreign language is a symbolic act bridging a gap of privilege with their interlocutors. In calling Spanish “our past,” Dallemand implies that Latinos and Latin Americans are not worthy of engagement on equal terms. Spanish speakers are backwards. They are no longer important. Chinese offers more opportunity to our children.

But does it really? Can learning Chinese open doors for everyone? While I strongly believe in foreign language education for all, and in the cognitive, social, and occupational advantages that foreign language study brings, using Chinese on the job or in everyday life is not necessarily practical or imaginable for all students, especially lower-income students in a largely black-white part of the country. When you don’t reinforce language through use, the skills wither away. When opportunities for using the language seem out of reach, the motivation disappears.

The push to learn Chinese is framed in purely economic and geopolitical terms. When these motivations are rendered moot by the inequality of opportunities, what is left?

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12 thoughts on “Blacks, Latinos, and the push to learn Chinese

  1. Given what I’ve heard about the cost of university education in the US, learning Chinese could definitely give advantages to students – especially those whose families have some money, but not enough for US tuition. I’m studying a bachelor’s degree in China, with my uni fees costing ¥24,800 yuan (~$4000) per year. Yes, there are issues with transferring qualifications between countries, but there are also plenty of study fields where this is not so much of an issue. There aren’t many westerners studying here at the moment, but I do think it is worth considering as an option for higher education on a budget.

    That said, there’s no excuse for ignoring Spanish, especially given the US’s location and deographic makeup. It would certainky open doors for a lot more local jobs, which is what the lowest income students wuld find most useful aout it. It’s also a lot easier for native English speakers to learn, for what that’s worth, and would make learning Portugese (the language of the world’s 8th largest economy) a lot easier too.

    Why can’t schools offer both languages though? In Australia, the policy for most states is for high schools to offer at least two languages – one Asian and one European language. They don’t give this choice in the US? The whole argument seems like a false dichotomy to me. It’s possible to plan for a future in which China is more dominant without letting go of “the past”.

    Out of curiosity, do you have any idea what the school was teaching before the Confucius Institute started offering discount Chinese teachers? Did the county just not have a LOTE program at all? The article certainly doesn’t mention the Chinese program replacing another language. How is this even possible?

  2. Most non-Americans seem to overestimate the value that Americans place on learning a foreign language. I don’t know about that county, but in my high school in immigrant-heavy California, for example, foreign languages were not taught until high school and no students were required to take one. We were given the option of Spanish or French, with most choosing Spanish. What is tragic is that the school was 70% Latino, many if not most from Spanish-speaking families, and there was no instruction available in Spanish until 9th grade!

  3. I can get public apathy when it comes to other languages. After all, it’s hard, and you often don’t get to reap the best benefits* until you’ve studied for many years, and there’s all sorts of issues where people feel expos and vulnerable when their language ability isn’t up to scratch… But the idea of the government not even offering the classes? Don’t they even care about phonics? Australians in general don’t place any huge value on foreign languages either (after all, everyone already speaks English, right?), but our politicians at least try to encourage language study. Even my horrible primary school had compulsory Greek lessons because of the large Greek community in the area. And my area was way less than 70% Greek.

    *The best day in my life was when I realized I was good enough at Chinese to watch Chinese war dramas, which are so awesome.

  4. I found this through Racialicious! You’re famous! That aside, this was well written and thought-provoking. Thank you.
    -Eleanor, your erstwhile little sib
    -

  5. Very good point made here.
    It just sounds odd to me because I live in Columbus, Ohio, and foreign languages are offered starting in middle school. And it actually is a requirement to complete a series of language classes to graduate. It does depend on the school, but I believe all the middle schools have Spanish and French, and then I know there are Japanese, and I think Russian, American sign language, and Latin classes offered. Again, it varies by school. There’s even a couple “language immersion” schools (French and Spanish) that begin language instruction in kindergarten.
    I think it’s unfortunate to have that kind of attitude…who will ever push these kids to do better or strive for things they never imagined? I have seen Chinese pushed as the language to learn only for economic reasons, which I also think is unfortunate. Even if learning another language will not help you earn more money one day it can be fun and fulfilling to do it anyways. I’m black, I do speak basic English, I am fluent in Spanish because I did study all through high school in and out of class, I had to take French, and for my own enjoyment I took a few Korean classes. I remember with Korean, people liked to point out that it would not be useful, but that was not my reason for taking it. It is nice to open your world and learn about other cultures, languages, and connect with people you never would’ve connected with otherwise.

  6. I am currently working in China for a major hotel chain. I really enjoy working over here and learning about the culture. When I finished university, I was offered a job in China. I didn’t know the language enough to be functional in the Chinese society, even though I took a semester of Mandarin in university prior to coming. Having been over here over the course of a year, I now realize the importance of learning a foreign language in order to function in society, but also to really understand one’s culture from a native’s perspective. I will continue to study Chinese language to be more functional and learn about a culture that is thousands of years old. As with any language, it is valuable for self-growth & development and I hope the US will understand the importance of being bilingual in a global society has become and is essential for learning about other cultures around the world.

  7. Calvin: “What is tragic is that the school was 70% Latino, many if not most from Spanish-speaking families, and there was no instruction available in Spanish until 9th grade!” – That’s why many schools offer Spanish for native speakers courses. I can’t imagine why that school doesn’t do it

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