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2012: The Year Mandarin Chinese Becomes a ‘Commonly Taught Language’?

February 3, 2012

December 22nd, 2011 by Chris Livaccari

A student at Aiton Elementary School in Washington, D.C., practices Chinese. (Grace Norman)

This is part of a series of year-end posts on Asia Blog written by Asia Society experts and Associate Fellows looking back on noteworthy events in 2011. You can read the entire series here.

In the 1980s and 1990s, in an effort to define the territory of our field, language educators created the idea of the “less commonly taught languages,” or LCTL . What is peculiar about this notion is that it includes just about every single one of the more than 5,000 languages spoken on Planet Earth, with the exception of English and just three other languages: Spanish, French, and German. For many years, these “big three” languages were just about the only choices available to language learners in the U.S., especially at the K-12 level.

What is perhaps most puzzling is that these “commonly taught languages” represent a mere drop in the linguistic bucket in terms of number of speakers worldwide. Combined, they comprise about 500 million speakers, roughly half that of Mandarin Chinese alone, and not much more than Hindi or Arabic. In fact, Spanish is the only one of the Big Three that has significantly more than 100 million speakers — other languages in this range include the aforementioned Hindi and Arabic, Bengali, Japanese, Punjabi, Russian and Portuguese (mostly representing Brazil).

In the early ’90s, when I began my studies of Chinese and Japanese, the world looked very different than it does today. I can look back to a time when Japan was “number one” and Japanese was the language of technology and industry, the language of the future. If you had looked at less commonly taught languages in 1990 or 1991, the smart money would have been on Japanese to supplant German or French as a “commonly taught” language. But in 2011 or 2012, that distinction clearly belongs to Chinese.

Read more here.

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