If we consider any of the major issues the global community faces during the remainder of the 21st century, there is no mistaking the fact that China occupies an important seat at the table where solutions must be sought.
It follows that all interested parties, whether countries or organizations, should provide qualified experts devoted to the process of engaging in that series of dialogues and the search for solutions to the many vexing challenges the world faces.
Anyone who has ever been a part of a discussion on a complex set of issues involving two groups who do not speak each other’s language will appreciate the tremendous value of a qualified and competent interpreter.
Conversely, when such discussions rely on an interpreter with weak skills, the result can be a nightmare, not to mention an enormous time-waster, generator of potentially serious misunderstanding, and amplifier of misperception.
Think forward, then, to the year 2020, and consider where the qualified linguists to support this global dialogue — at least the part of it relying on the English and Chinese languages — will come from, and who is currently paying for the lion’s share of their training.
For starters, as I wrote a few weeks back, Chinese consumers are spending on the order of US$4.5 billion this year on private English-language education and related test preparation services within China, and the forecast increase in spending is on a sharp upward curve. They are also going abroad to obtain college and university degrees in English-speaking countries, in record numbers.
Some 128,000 Chinese began degree programs in the U.S. in 2010. In the same year, 13,000 Americans came to China to study. The majority of these were not for degree programs, but rather for one semester or one year courses of study. I don’t have the data for exchange students in China hailing from other English-speaking countries, but I am confident the Chinese going abroad for degree programs to English-speaking countries overwhelmingly outnumber those coming to China to study, as they do on a 10 to 1 basis in the US-China context.
Obviously, the language learning opportunity presented by a six to 12 month stay in a foreign country is excellent, but very limited when compared to a full four-year degree program.
Apart from private English schools and test preparation programs in China, the estimated total number of Chinese of all ages studying English in schools of all sorts is currently 300 million.
On the Chinese studies front, there has been a boom in interest and enrollment across the globe during the past 5 years. University enrollment in Chinese studies courses has soared, and more and more elite secondary schools are teaching Chinese — in Europe, North America, Australia, India and so on. Many Korean students enroll in Chinese universities for full degree programs.
The Confucius Institutes have contributed positively to the spread of Chinese language studies through funding support, provision of qualified teachers, and teaching materials. Funded by the Chinese government, they now support nearly 350 classrooms in almost 100 countries around the world. An associate recently told me there are 16 Confucius Institute Chinese teachers at the secondary level in Salt Lake City alone.
While the Voice of America, the BBC and Australia Broadcast Network all provide English learning programming through broadcast and online channels, none of their host governments provide funding support or directly operate broad-based English language educational programs in China.
The U.S. has some 100 Peace Corps volunteers who teach English in various parts of China. The British Council is a major provider of high quality ESL classroom instruction in Hong Kong, but not on the Chinese mainland.
Undoubtedly budget constraints are a part of the problem, and there are probably other factors as well.
Be that as it may, the unmistakable fact is that between them, Chinese consumers and the Chinese government are investing the lion’s share of the cost of training the next generation of qualified bi-lingual English-Chinese interlocutors.
Looking ahead to the year 2020, there will be an enormous imbalance in the size of the global population of advanced Chinese learners of English as compared with native English speakers who have attained advanced proficiency in Chinese.
Unlike a trade imbalance, maybe this kind of imbalance really doesn’t matter, as long as the required skills are readily available in the market. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting new phenomenon on which to reflect.
Regardless of where they were born or pursued their language studies, people with advanced skills in Chinese and English will be in very hot demand.