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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.


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

63 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Reggie Wang // Jan 3, 2013 at 11:30 pm

    Thanks to metioned about me ,Tom. I still remember that story,Tri-lingual Bi-lingual and American. That’s a funny story when we are at the way to learn English. The reacher just want to us to know: you are not an American, you have to learn English. Now I am doing the chinese teaching at where someone who really want’t to learn it by themself. During the teaching I also learned losts from them. To learn chinese is a very good way to know China. About learn Chinese what I want to say is: that seems not only a kind of duty but also a kind of enrich the mind.

  • 2 Rich // Jan 4, 2013 at 8:21 am

    I’ve lived in Michigan for over 6 years now, and I see very little understanding and will to deal with preparing our state’s children to live in a globalized society. A bold program of teaching Mandarin statewide would require a large investment of money and resources, and require working with teachers and local school district administrators. Sadly, given our current and more recent crops of politicians in Lansing, their only concern seems to be to expand the number of charter schools, cut teacher pay, implement a cheaper labor force, and cut taxes. None of those will make Michigan a place where people will want to come to “make it” so to speak.

    In my two previous places of residence, Chicago and Los Angeles, there is far more acknowledgement of globalization and the rise of China (and far less fear of change and the new). For over a decade there have been Chinese-immersion schools in Chicago. In California, you can now find Mandarin in many schools, and Cantonese-speaking immigrants or their descendants are learning Mandarin in order to do business with mainland China.

  • 3 roger march // Jan 4, 2013 at 8:26 am

    This truly is an out of the box idea whose time has come.. Imagine the advantage Michigan would have if indeed this were to happen. Our relentless positive action Gov would be wise to take the idea to heart!

  • 4 Ed Bladen // Jan 4, 2013 at 8:41 am

    Read your essay with interest. I studied Chinese about 50 years ago at what was then the “Army Language School” in Monterrey, California. Have not kept up with it as I should but have taken refresher classes. But, the message I bring is that Lansing School District does provide an immersion class in Chinese Mandarin. My 8 year old granddaughter has been enrolled for the past two years and just loves it. She is doing well. I anticipate she will stick with it through high school and college. She will be one of the few young Michiganders who will be prepared to deal in this global economy. Lobby for similar programs in your school districts.

  • 5 Y. Lee // Jan 4, 2013 at 9:35 am

    Right on the visionary call to action: “Learn Chinese!” !!

  • 6 Michael // Jan 4, 2013 at 10:48 am

    As a Chinese, I’m really glad to see China has been paid so much attention. Indeed, China is developing rapidly, and I’m good to see you, as an representative of Americans, are eager to know about China more thoroughly. Language is the tool of getting to know alien cultures, not only Americans should learn Chinese, but also Chinese should learn English, then they could be the bridges between two totally different cultures, through this we can learn from each other. It’s a win-win result, that both of two countries can benefit from it. Hope you can try your best to build the economic, cultural and educational bridge between US and China all the time, make contribution to our two countries’ co-development, people will thank the contributors!

  • 7 Greg Thrasher // Jan 4, 2013 at 10:52 am

    Another simple minded approach that at end if the day will not augment anything in any marketplace.

    It amazes me still how so many think quick rich schemes have any long term value .

    Learning Chinese is just a part of the equation but let’s not just stop there.

  • 8 Jackie Taylor // Jan 4, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Having worked with the Chinese for many years, and holding high respect for the people I’ve worked with as well as the language and culture of China, I agree with teaching Chinese in schools. Fortunately, many schools are already involved, and hopefully, others will soon join in. Thanks for a good reminder and article.

  • 9 Philip Walker // Jan 4, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    Tom, drop by the Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies School, a Detroit Public School that teaches Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and French from kindegdarten to eighth grade. Students enter and study the same language for their entire time there. The school is a hidden gem in DPS.

  • 10 Chris Burger // Jan 4, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    Great article Tom. I came from Oakland Co. Schools right about the time they began offering Mandarin and it has benefitted me greatly in my career and personal life. I had the opportunity to begin studying Chinese in middle school and continued all the way through high school. Having a unique language credential at such a young age is what got me into some decent universities. I committed to China and the language throughout college and ended up building my career in China for 5 years. While in middle school I never realized what a door opener the opportunity to study Chinese was at a such a young age but surely appreciate it now, and wholly support a state-wide program that would provide similar opportunities to other children.

  • 11 KP CHEN // Jan 4, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    The world today, again comes to arts and humanities, for answers to our collective ills & societal problems … for which, Tom as a leading educator, for adults and children, provides very bold measures.

    Facing historical challenges since 1840, the choice to reject, accept, welcome or otherwise. the western ways, has been a daily movement or constant battle, inside and out, among Chinese popuation, even to this date … 172 years later.

    I suspect, the best way to learn the things Asia or China, is to take more anthopological’s point of view … looking at them, with some humanism and plus a little humility, in order to grasp both the grace and the stupudity …

    The China things are too enumerous, defying our limited time, or oftentimes, politic or logic … so, how not get overwhemmed and still retain a sanely mind and perspectives, is very important.

    Maintain our center, keep our dignity, imbue with some elements of creativity or flexibility, China should be just like our internet, we gracefully use it to navigate the past, present and future.

  • 12 Jerry Leismer // Jan 4, 2013 at 9:00 pm

    Itt sounds Relentless, Pervasive, and Positive. Michigan needs to take BIG steps, not just minor steps, to assure a reasonable position in the future. Rick: This IS a good idea.
    Jerry Leismer

  • 13 Todd White // Jan 4, 2013 at 9:50 pm


    This column is terrific . My son Aidan is an eight year old home schooler who has been studying ancient Chinese culture/history for one year, and will begin Mandarin classes this spring.

    This is what I call Relentless Positive Action (RPA) for our school aged kids, imperative to have our kids prepared for the new economy.

    Appreciate the topics presented you have brought to my attention.

    Thank you.

    Todd White

  • 14 John Gnahz // Jan 4, 2013 at 10:24 pm

    Tom has a very broad knowledge and very deep understand of China and its culture. His view of China, which is based on his deep love of his own country, though ,differs from the so-called “China experts” sometimes, always gets to points.

  • 15 Michael // Jan 5, 2013 at 12:50 am

    Tom’s call to action would have been cutting edge 10 years ago – now its almost a matter of survival. America’s prior success in the global marketplace was in part ensured when 2/5 of the population (China and India) were on the sidelines – now they are in the race and charging hard. If we don’t want to be ecclipsed, we need to improve our K-16 system radically, and Tom’s idea is part of that equation.

  • 16 sara jones // Jan 5, 2013 at 6:03 am

    I am so glad my grandchildren happy to be in Oakland where Tom worked with Mr. Patterson and led the idea of Mandarin in sch0ols. Is it the magic bullet to Michigan’s long terms issues — no. But it is better to do something than nothing. Le’ts hope Gov. snyder is wise and borrows a page from Tom Watkins, truly the chinese pied pipe of michigan~

  • 17 Martha // Jan 5, 2013 at 10:08 am

    An interesting twist on this essay:

  • 18 M. Murphy // Jan 6, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    As usual, you push that envelope. And it REALLY needs pushing. The sooner people stop saying “the Chinese are going to take over America”, the better we ALL will be.
    The Chinese LOVE American products, and for the most part, I think they feel the same way about our people.
    We need to capitilize (literally and figuratively) on the China economy before the Europeans and/or everyone else does.
    I’m not sure learning Chinese in our schools will ever be “mandated”. However, the more we can spread the word about the potential benefit as an “optional language”, the more we ALL will win (do they still really offer French; seriously?:-)
    Keep up the good work Tom!!!

  • 19 Jon // Jan 7, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    Good article, but everyone knows Mr. Privatize won’t spend a dime to invest or help the public schools. His privatize buddies will harp on how great that 20% kids do well, while ignoring the rest of the kids in the state. Because it is common knowledge profit comes first for the govenor and his fellow conservatives.

  • 20 KP CHEN // Jan 10, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    If every Chinese and American save 10 cent per day for charity purposes, then, roughly 200 millions U.S. dollars are accumulated each day.

    Half amount dispenses to domestic U.S.; half amount could be given over to domestic Greater China Area.

    Great Love is from Little Love. But, Little Love may not know Great Love.

  • 21 Jingxia // Feb 6, 2013 at 11:16 pm

    Tom, you play an important leading role in promoting the development of China-U.S. relations and arouse Americans’ attention to learn Chinese successfully. As a Chinese teacher in Michigan, I’ m welcome to absorb more and more students to learn Chinese.

  • 22 John Q. Public // Feb 12, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    Chinese language and culture?

    I’d be happy if the students would master standard English and know a little bit about U.S. History.

  • 23 Marge Sorge // Feb 15, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    Great thoughts and much needed.
    Sorry, John Q– we need to think much broader and bigger than we are— Thanks Watkins for thinking around the bend on this and other issues

  • 24 Amy Jaye // Mar 18, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    You know there are more people speaking english in china than the rest of the world combined.. Wake up people! It;s time to even the pendulum. China is only going to grow and the more people can speak Mandarin will make us only stronger!

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