Monday, August 30, 2010

Goodbye English, Hello Mandarin

My daydreams aren't limited to pulling up my gold laced driveway in the Ghostbusters mobile. I think about the future; where the world may be headed, and who will end up on top. Even as a high school student, I knew America's success would bubble suffocating our nationalism while shutting out former allies. I was certain China would emerge as the next global super power. My peers and family paid no attention laughing their way through Seinfeld reruns. I thought this change of power would happen when my glasses were thicker than a milkshake and while I was on social security. It's happening now. I feel like the scientist turned hero in those "natural disaster" movies. I know I'm not alone, but someone must spread the word.

You may be asking what proof I have? Not much. I failed to consult a recognized economist, I don't have any secret military blueprints, and I even put aside my addiction to wikipedia. Instead, I'm listening to the people. Specifically, over two hundred of the brightest teenagers in 青森市, (Aomori) a small city in Japan's northern 田舎 (countryside).

As the resident English speaking 外国人 (foreigner) at Aomori High School, it's my job to grade 3rd year students' (seniors) essay exams. Today's prompt read: "Do you agree or disagree with Japan adopting English as its second official language?" Now, I've seen this before. Two years ago, I recall perusing scores of adolescent thoughts on the highly debated topic. I was shocked though to notice how two thirds of students agreed. Even those opposed were able to devote some of their 100 words to include positive aspects to learning 英語 (English). I was partial to them accepting my native tongue, especially when their taxes were paying my salary. But more importantly, I was proud of them for escaping their pride and focusing on their future.

But that focus has changed. Today I estimate less than a third of students agreed. The majority was loud and clear: "We don't need to learn English." Why the sudden change of heart? One word, or country rather: China. The emerging Asian powerhouse peeked its head into more than half of the essays. "America is declining, and China is growing. We should be learning Chinese."

Though not all of the essays were pro-Chinese, the "let's move away from English" sentiment was clear. While quite a few students argued for the benefits of learning English, they merely claimed it was good for international business and for personal travel. It's painful to think that someone feels they need to learn a new language to travel. I've been fortunate enough to visit several non-English speaking nations, without ever adopting a new language. Of course, I speak English, and was accomodated with signage, guides, and brochures. It's just a discomforting thought that one language is thought to be the answer. They all should be.

These students get it, they understand, and they have a plan. The gist of the essays conveyed the feeling that Japanese people are becoming too westernized; losing touch with their own culture. The students are calling for a return to focusing on 日本語 (Japanese) as the one true language. Though, they also wish to study a second language, but one of their choice. The right to choose echoes freedom, and this generation is ready.

There's already rumors jumping around like vending machine bouncy balls about Japan shutting down the JET Program (my employer). While this may just be a way to cut costs during the recession, there's no denying the maturing concensus that English is not the answer. More so, people are waking up to the notion that there are other beautiful yet economically convenient languages to study.

China's emergence is a reminder that English doesn't have to be the cure. While many feel studying Mandarin is in their best interest, many are simply opening their eyes to other cultures and languages. This isn't a farewell to English, but it certainly is a hello to Mandarin and to the rest of the world.