by Julia Pierrepont III
SAN DIEGO, the United States, May 11 (Xinhua) -- More than 1,000 educators, administrators, civil servants, and policy-makers from across the United States and seven other countries met this weekend in the U.S. coastal city of San Diego, California, with one shared goal: to promote Chinese language and culture in the United States.
They came together at the 12th annual National Chinese Language Conference at the San Diego Sheraton Convention Center to share and discuss the trends and challenges facing globally-oriented education in general and Chinese language and culture in particular in a rapidly changing world.
In collaboration with the Confucius Institute Headquarters, this year's event was co-organized by the College Board and Asia Society and is themed "Connecting to a global future." The three-day conference, which will come to an end on Saturday, covered a wide-range of topics related to Chinese language studying in the United States.
Anthony Jackson, vice president of Education at Asia Society, applauded the organization's core mission to enhance employability and citizenship in ways that help prepare American students to compete in the tightly interconnected world of the future.
But he warned that "American students were dangerously uninformed about international issues, which is particularly glaring in the case of Asia."
Calling this knowledge deficit and the under-appreciation of languages like Mandarin "Dangerous," he added that the Asian Society was working hard to increase teachings in these areas.
"It is through language one acquires understanding and appreciation for the history and culture of a people," he affirmed, "And that is the basis for good judgement as we go forward in the future."
Adela de la Torre, president of San Diego State University told Xinhua, "Foreign languages have always been a big part of San Diego's strong, diverse community and we understand how valuable they will be to preparing our students to compete globally."
Though panelists felt there had been a sea change in the educational community as more and more educators grasped the importance of global-centric education, they pointed out that, in practical terms, foreign language-learning is still relegated to college, high school, and at best, middle school levels, and still not included at earlier stages when children first begin their formal education.
Its absence in primary schools sends a signal that foreign languages are not as important, Jackson contends. He also stressed that knowledge of the world will not be prioritized in classrooms until it is integrated into the standardized tests that students must take.
"To send a signal of how important this is, we need an educational policy that calls for early language learning. We need to find ways to integrate the entire world into our whole curriculum and into our testing procedures, so we can identify our student's global competence deficiencies and work to improve them."
Rajika Bhandari, Research and Strategy Director for the Institute for International Education, which was established in 1919 with the founding premise that international exchange could make the world a more interconnected place - describes what her organization has discovered about what motivates the younger generation of students to.
"Gen Z-ers are savvy consumers. They and their families want to know what the return on investment is for foreign language study. Well, we have the data to prove that students with foreign languages experience much better career outcomes," she told Xinhua.
The U.S. Department of State is actively promoting the Chinese language, listing Mandarin as one of the 15 key languages in its "Critical Language Scholarship Program," and offering scholarships to U.S. citizens willing to study it.
Some U.S. states are already well ahead of the curve. Utah adopted a state-wide Mandarin program ten years ago in response to the urging of the Utah business community.
"Utah businesses were suffering significant losses due to not having enough Chinese language speakers to help them communicate with their counterparts in the Chinese market," Stacy Lyon from the Utah State Office of Education told Xinhua, noting that it's important to bring Mandarin to the state's school system.
"It really gives our student a leg up and makes them more competitive in the global market," added Marybeth Fuller of Utah's Washington County School District.
Holly Chang, Senior Advisor of the "Committee of 100," an organization of influential leaders in the Chinese-American community, concurs, "Growing company in the United States can't prosper and compete if they don't understand the Chinese market too. That's a huge career advantage for American students who speak Mandarin."