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Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins

Learn Chinese!

January 4, 2013

Could Governor Snyder follow Brooks Patterson’s lead and call for the teaching of Chinese in all Michigan schools? Governor Snyder could catapult Michigan forward in his State of the State (SOS) address by calling for the teaching of Chinese history, culture and language in all of our schools. The reinvention of Michigan may well require that students learn Chinese and much more about China, the “Middle Kingdom.”

Radical? Absolutely. Yet this initiative would help place Michigan on the global map, making our state an economic magnet for Chinese direct investment to prepare our children for the hyper-competitive, disruptive, transformational, knowledge-based economy where ideas and jobs now move effortlessly across the globe.

We would be wise to learn more about China or, as they have called themselves dating back thousands of years, “Zhongguo,” the “Middle Kingdom”. Michigan may be two beautiful peninsulas, but we are not an island. China and America have two disparate cultures. Our relationship with China will grow increasingly critical and complex in the future. How we manage this relationship will impact not only the people of our respective countries, but all of humanity.

Moving forward, all major global issues will intersect at the corner of America and China. As a state and nation, we need to do much more to prepare our children to be global citizens. We cannot do so by ignoring the Chinese –one-fifth of all the people on the planet!

China certainly has a series of serious, internal and external challenges that it must address as the 21st century matures. Fueled with 1.3 billion people and a keen desire to regain the top perch it held throughout most of history, China is once again a nation on the move. At the 2011 Munk Debates — Canada’s international debate series on public policy (www.munkdebates.com) — NiallFerguson, author, leading historian and biographer of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, squared off against CNN’sFareed Zaharia, world-renowned economist David Daokui Li and Henry Kissinger himself. This is what Mr. Ferguson had to say about China’s rise:

“I believe the 21st century will belong to China because most centuries have belonged to China. The 19th and 20th centuries were the exceptions. Eighteen of the last twenty centuries saw China as, by some margin, the largest economy in the world.China is more of a continent than a country. A fifth of humanity lives there. It is forty times the size of Canada. If China was organized like Europe it would be divided into ninety nation-states…in thirty years China’s economy has grown by a factor of nearly ten, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently projected that it will be the largest economy in the world in five years’ time. It has already taken over the United States as a manufacturer and as the world’s biggest automobile market. And the demand for cars in China will increase by tenfold in the years to come …it used to be reliant on foreign direct investment but,today, with $3 trillion of international reserves and sovereign wealth fund of $200 trillion in assets, China has become THE investor.”

He goes on to add, “What’s perhaps the most impressive is that China is catching up to other nations in terms of innovation and in terms of education.”

What happens in China will not stay in China and we have work to do as a state and a nation if we wish to maintain the American Dream.

As global citizens we behave more like country bumpkins and need to step up our game if we are going to both compete and collaborate on the world stage. Too few of our citizens are globally literate — not understanding other countries’ history, culture or language.

China has awakened and is on the move. We need to know more and more about this sleeping giant, its language, culture, history, aspirations and beliefs. This fact is driven home each time I return to China, a country I’ve been visiting for a quarter of a century. We could start by setting policies in place that would help prepare our children for this changing world. Consider my last trips to the“Middle Kingdom,” where:

I met with top government, education and business officials whom all understood and spoke perfect English. As impressive as that was, it is trumped by the fact that a large percentage of the 1.3 billion Chinese people—one-fifth of all humanity—already speak or are learning our language.

Reggie, a student at Mianyang University asked me, “Tom what do you call someone who speaks only three languages?”
“Tri-lingual.” I responded.
“Correct,” he responded like an old school teacher. He then asked, “What do you call some who can speak two languages?”
“Bi-lingual,” I responded confidently.
“Right again,” he says with a smile. “And, someone who can speak only one language?” he asked with a glimmer in his eye.
“Mono-lingual,” I responded triumphantly and without hesitation.
“Wrong,” he said.
“Wrong? What do you mean wrong?” I demanded.
“Someone who can only speak one language is an “American!” He said, smirking.

Ouch!

I have met elementary school children, not just in the premier schools in Beijing and Shanghai, but in the countryside who speak English. How do our children compare in their ability to speak and understand Chinese or any other language? This, when during the early period of trade with China any Chinese caught teaching their language to “fan qui” (e.g. “foreign devils,” otherwise known as “Westerners”), were put to death.

Lacking a better understanding of China, its history, culture and language may be the death of us all.

The World Is Rapidly Changing
The meteoric rise of China has seen Mandarin enter the universal league of languages. At my suggestion, Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson called for the teaching of Chinese in all Oakland County Schools in his State of the County address in 2006. Many of the Oakland Schools have adopted the County Executive’s call and have added some level of Chinese instruction to their curriculum.

Brooks Patterson, Bob Ficano and Mark Hackel –the County Executives in Oakland, Wayne and Macomb Counties respectively– along with Governor Snyder, who has already traveled twice to China in his first two years in office, are pragmatic. They understand that the Chinese are going to invest trillions of dollars around the globe in the coming decade. They know that people and investments go where they are welcome…and stay where they are appreciated. They understand that building two-way bridges with China will give our children and our state a competitive advantage going forward. So, they plant seeds of change that will benefit our communities.

Call To Action
So here is my call to action: “Learn Chinese!”

The governor, State Board of Education and the legislature should follow Brooks Patterson’s lead and call for the teaching of Chinese in all of our schools beginning as early as kindergarten. A good and fair standard is for every child to be proficient in a minimum of at least one world language before graduating from high school.

While learning any language is valuable, knowledge of Chinese will be invaluable in the future. Mandarin is becoming synonymous with the language of business and this will only accelerate going forward.Being able to understand Chinese history, culture and speak the language will be the equivalent of an Ivory league MBA as the 21st century unfolds. Put another way: If you know Mandarin, you are able to communicate with approximately 2 billion people in the world.

Today, far too few of our students have the language skills necessary to perform on a global stage.

Sadly, even after 4 years of Spanish –the predominant language taught in our public schools– many students may be able to conjugate a verb but they can’t ask simple directions, order a meal or find a restroom in Spanish.

The reluctance of policy makers to grasp the importance of understanding China and her language is a metaphor for a much wider problem: Our sheer lack of knowledge about all things“Asia” and, in particular, China. This is exacerbated by our failure to come to grips with just how much China will continue totransform our lives right here in the Mitten State, let alone the world.

Many argue that China will stumble and fall — proclaiming America an “exceptional” country — as if we can defy the gravitational pull of China’s rising. America, of course, is and will remain a great country. Yet, we would be foolish to ignore reality and view China through only the rearview mirror. China is like a kaleidoscope: Full of constant and unpredictable change. Its ancient history of nearly 4,000 years is intertwined with Confucian principals of harmony, stability, and order. This drives China’s decision making.

Governor Snyder has called for the reinvention of Michigan. Any “reinvention” will require a deeper knowledge of China and its language. If we wish to collaborate and compete on the global stage as this 21st century unfolds, we must first adapt to a new reality. Learning all we can about China and Mandarin would be a sensible place to start.

We can learn from China and we most certainly need to learn more about China. This may be a radical idea. Yet, we must be bold, creative, and innovative in order to collaborate, compete and excel on the global stage.

Tom Watkins has a lifelong interest in China sparked by a great fourth grade teacher. He has been traveling, writing and seeking ways to help build cultural, educational and economic two-way bridges between our two countries for over a quarter of a century.Watkins serves on the U of M Confucius Institute Board ofAdvisors and the MEDC International Advisory Board. He is the former State Superintendent of Schools and currently is a U.S./China business and educational consultant. He can be reached at: tdwatkins88@gmail.com

January 3, 2013 · Filed under Tom Watkins

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