When U.S. President Barack Obama announced the 100,000 Strong Initiative in November 2009, setting the goal of sending 100,000 American students to study in China by 2014, it seemed like a lofty aspiration. In the 2008-2009 academic year, only 13,674 American students studied abroad in China. But that number rose steadily over the next five years, with help from private donations and Chinese government scholarships, and in July 2014 Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the goal had been met.
Now the American president’s back with an even bigger goal and one closer to home. On Sept. 25, in a joint press conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is wrapping up an official state visit, Obama announced the launch of “1 Million Strong,” an initiative that aims to bring the total number of stateside learners of Mandarin Chinese to 1 million by the year 2020. “If our countries are going to do more together around the world,” said Obama, “then speaking each other’s language, truly understanding each other, is a good place to start.”
One million may seem like a lot, but it’s just under 2 percent of the total number of U.S. students; in fall 2015, there were about 55 million students enrolled in U.S. public and private primary and secondary schools. Still, there’s much catching up to do. “Estimates suggest that between 300 and 400 million Chinese students are learning English today, while only about 200,000 American students are studying Chinese,” Travis Tanner, senior vice president and chief operating officer at the 100,000 Strong Foundation, told Foreign Policy in an email. “We must bridge that gap.”
The new program, administered by the 100,000 Strong Foundation, a nonprofit that also oversees the 2009 initiative, recognizes the growing importance of the U.S.-China relationship and aims to prepare a new generation of U.S. leaders to engage effectively with China. Increasing the number of American students who study Mandarin will “create a pipeline of China-savvy employees in a range of fields” and, Tanner remarked, will “ensure our trade relationship with China continues to benefit the American economy and that the future generation of American entrepreneurs, business owners, journalists, engineers, scientists, doctors, as well as government officials at both the national and state levels, understand China.”
The new initiative also aims to create a standardized national Chinese curriculum, flexible enough to allow for adaptations at the local school board level but comprehensive enough to prepare students for the AP Chinese-language exam and later advanced study. One Million Strong will also promote advances in language-learning technology and online instruction, promote investment in teachers colleges, and establish a consortium of governors who support Mandarin learning in public schools.
Such a huge goal, of course, also comes with huge challenges, not the least of which is funding. Though both Presidents Obama and Xi have endorsed the initiative, it will rely primarily on private funding, according to Tanner, who hopes that the official state-level endorsement will “inspire” financial support from “individuals, organizations and corporations.”
Attempts to bring Mandarin into the classroom haven’t been free from controversy in the past. China’s own huge soft power initiative to increase Mandarin learning around the globe, the Confucius Institutes, also operates primary and secondary education initiatives called Confucius Classrooms, which receive Chinese government funding. There are 357 such classrooms stateside, according to Chinese government data. But according to a January 2011 CNN report, community members in school districts in Ohio and California objected to the use of Chinese government funds to provide instruction to American students, with one calling it “communist propaganda.” A domestic push to increase Chinese-language instruction and adopt a nationally accepted Mandarin curriculum may help depoliticize the issue.
The importance and practicality of mastering Chinese has lately become more apparent. When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg met with Xi during the president’s recent visit to business and technology leaders in Seattle, the founder held a conversation with the Chinese president entirely in Mandarin. (Facebook is blocked in China and would benefit handsomely if allowed to operate there.)
“This is such an inspiring example of how important linguistic and cultural understanding is to enrich U.S.-China relationships in business and beyond,” said Jessica Beinecke, founder of Chinese-language learning platform Crazy Fresh Chinese. “Zuckerberg’s a busy guy. If he has time to learn Mandarin, so do American high school students.”
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