From ni hao to au revoir: Remaking Redwood’s World Language curriculum

Michael Seton

Today, approximately one billion people worldwide speak English and almost the same number speak Mandarin. According to a research study by Ethnologue, Hindi and Spanish are the third and fourth most popular languages with over 500 million people speaking each language. Yet, the World Languages department of Redwood High School offers only two foreign language options for students: Spanish and French.

Many students feel that we have an insufficient selection of foreign languages at Redwood. According to a Cub Bark survey, 77 percent of students expressed interest in taking different foreign language courses. Specifically, 34 percent of students indicated an interest in learning American Sign Language (ASL), 26 percent preferred Italian, and 17 percent wanted Mandarin Chinese. While neither ASL nor Italian are widely spoken, there are almost as many speakers of Mandarin as there are English speakers.

Illustration by Michael Seton

Since Mandarin is one of the most popular languages in the world, it makes sense to reorient our world view from Western European society to Asian languages and cultures. Chinese is spoken in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Taiwan, as well as in China. Closer to home, the Language Access Network of San Francisco reports that almost half of San Francisco’s residents speak a language other than English at home, most commonly Mandarin, followed by Spanish, Tagalog, and Russian. Clearly, the Mandarin language and culture profoundly impacts the lives of many Bay Area residents.

Although Tamalpais Union High School District schools offer only Spanish and French courses, most Marin private high schools, including Branson, San Domenico, and Marin Academy also offer Mandarin Chinese. Unfortunately, Redwood students have to use outside resources, like local community colleges to access Mandarin and other languages. Incorporating Mandarin into the World Languages curriculum would make it more accessible for students and provide an opportunity to explore an important culture.

However, not everyone agrees that learning Chinese is important. The primary reason for this is that Mandarin is one of the hardest languages for English speakers to master. Mandarin has a different alphabet, tones, and grammar that lacks tenses and plural words. According to the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, it takes an American about 2,200 hours to learn Mandarin fluently but only 600 hours to master Spanish or French. Mastering Mandarin takes a much greater amount of time, commitment, and perseverance than Western European languages.

But that perseverance will set you apart in non-Mandarin speaking countries such as the United States. As China’s largest trading partner, the U.S. accounts for almost 18 percent of China’s exports. China is the world’s third largest buyer of U.S. products as well, so the two countries have a massive trading relationship. 

As our economic relationship with China expands, having a better understanding of Mandarin and Chinese culture will greatly enhance the future career opportunities of today’s American students. We are likely to interact more frequently with Chinese companies as they become customers of or suppliers to the American companies for which we work. It is already common to see multinational companies seeking executives who can speak Mandarin so this language skill will become only more valuable in the years ahead.

One challenge in introducing a new language into Redwood’s curriculum is the lack of funding for a new program. To solve the funding issue, we should consider reallocating resources from the French language program as that language is less relevant to our local culture and economy. Only a small number of French people live in the Bay Area, and French culture has had little impact on the history and development of the Bay Area.

Another issue is the limited availability of teaching resources. However, California has more Chinese speakers than any other state in the US. Since other local high schools have retained sufficient teaching resources for their Mandarin programs, it’s reasonable to assume Redwood should be able to do the same.

Mandarin is the second most important language in the world today, and it is one of the most commonly spoken languages in Bay Area homes. Implementing a Mandarin language program at Redwood would reflect the Bay Area’s geographic proximity to Asia and the cultural and economic importance of the countries in which it is spoken. For all these reasons a Mandarin Chinese program would be welcomed by the Redwood community.