In the past few years, the American press has written hundreds of feature stories about the push to learn Chinese, and since this is what I study, I pay close attention to these articles. Until this morning, I have not encountered an article in which the arguments for and against Chinese language learning have been so revealing about the US racial order.
Dallemand seems to ignore the fact that Spanish is not just the past but the present and long-term future for Bibb County, for the South, and the US as a whole. Mexican immigration has essentially stopped, but the Latino population is still growing rapidly and the US still has strong economic, political, and military ties to Spanish-speaking Latin America. (Have we forgotten that we still hold on to a Spanish-speaking colony in the Caribbean?)
Learning a language requires learning cultural sensitivity. Furthermore, for native speakers of the world’s dominant international language, attempting a foreign language is a symbolic act bridging a gap of privilege with their interlocutors. In calling Spanish “our past,” Dallemand implies that Latinos and Latin Americans are not worthy of engagement on equal terms. Spanish speakers are backwards. They are no longer important. Chinese offers more opportunity to our children.
But does it really? Can learning Chinese open doors for everyone? While I strongly believe in foreign language education for all, and in the cognitive, social, and occupational advantages that foreign language study brings, using Chinese on the job or in everyday life is not necessarily practical or imaginable for all students, especially lower-income students in a largely black-white part of the country. When you don’t reinforce language through use, the skills wither away. When opportunities for using the language seem out of reach, the motivation disappears.
The push to learn Chinese is framed in purely economic and geopolitical terms. When these motivations are rendered moot by the inequality of opportunities, what is left?”