Learning Chinese as a Critical, Multiple Literacy

The Chinese Immersion Program that my daughter is enrolled in has been featured in the local media over the past few days, mostly due to the fact that US DOE officials were in town. Here is a clip from the newspaper.

The Lansing School District will expand its new Chinese immersion preschool into a full elementary experience with an $800,000 federal startup grant announced Wednesday.

Likewise, Michigan State University and Dearborn Public Schools have received a multiyear, multimillion-dollar grant from the federal government to develop a K-16 Arabic instruction curriculum.

Both Chinese and Arabic are among the most critical foreign languages needed in today’s schools, according to the federal government.

Lansing State Journal: Globally speaking

Now, I am all for this program (obviously, since my child is in it), but I am becoming increasingly concerned with the ways in which this program is framed, both by the school and the media. The way that the DOE uses “critical” to describe these languages needs to be unpacked a bit. Basically, the way I hear it, I think that critical means something like this:

  • Learn Chinese so we can continue the capitalist march into China and that we can communicate with them for our own purposes, mainly to make money. Check out this NPR story from today on this topic.
  • Learn Arabic so we can beat the terrorists. (I won’t say anymore about this, because others have said it more eloquently and passionately than I could.)

In this discourse of critical language learning, no discussion emerges in the ways that a multiliteracies perspective would suggest we think of “critical literacy.” In this mode of thinking, we might say that learning Chinese is important so we have a better understanding of the culture and language so that we can express ourselves more clearly.
It might also suggest that the visual, gestural, and otherwise artistic “texts” that the Chinese culture produces are different from our own, let alone their way of thinking and being in the world, and understanding that perspective can give us insights on how the rest of the world views us. And how we view ourselves.
Rather than learning Chinese to be able to make money (and, I know, that is part of it, no matter how idealistic I want to be), why can’t we focus on the cross-cultural understandings that can come of this?

Having worked with many international students at the Writing Center, I have come to appreciate the ways in which students from different cultures communicate — the words and phrases they chose, who and what has agency in their language, the structure of their narratives and arguments. This is why I want my daughter to learn another language; she should be better able to communicate in English and in Chinese because of the cultural and rhetorical understandings that she can make from knowing both of these languages and cultures.

I am happy that she now wants to see the Great Wall instead of going to Disney Land. Her world is growing every day. As a bonus, she will be able to “compete in the global economy,” but that is just be a bonus on top of the cross-cultural understanding she would posses.

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