One of the first things I noticed as an American moving overseas a year ago was that people seemed to know more about where I was from than I did about where they were from.
Some of that surely is my own lack of knowledge, but there's more to it than that. I was thinking about this recently in a Chinese language class I'm taking, where I and people from Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, France, Slovakia and other places are all trying to learn to say more than “ni hao.”
One thing that struck me was that the class uses English as the default language when we need to switch out of Mandarin, and the textbooks are all in English. Now, there are only two or three native English speakers in the class, so most of the students are really using their 2nd or 3rd language to learn their 3rd or 4th language.
As a monolingual American, I'm impressed.
The use of English makes sense, of course. It's the world's business language, and English-speaking culture is everywhere in the big cities of Asia, from the mass media to McDonald's and Starbucks (where I sit writing this, nursing a hot chocolate and listening to a mix of Chinese and English voices and some Starbucks-selected jazz on the sound system).
Having English as your personal default language certainly has some advantages, as long as English remains the common tongue. But it can also make you lazy.
I've read in major newspapers that there are about 200 million Chinese people studying English, and about 50,000 Americans studying Chinese.
There are a lot of people in China who have only the most basic English skills, but in the long run, those numbers can't be good for the United States, and can only hurt us in business. English is a huge focus for Chinese people.
Last year, the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing put out a report on relations between the two countries, and included an interesting nugget comparing U.S. exports to China with two of our major competitors, Germany and Japan.
It said that Germany exports three times as much as we do to China, and Japan, five times as much, when you adjust for the sizes of their economies.
The reasons for that are complicated. They may be better exporters, or those countries may be better at making some of the capital equipment that China really needs now, among other factors. But our monolingual tendencies don't help.
The other day I was reminded about how pervasive English-speaking culture can be when a Malaysian friend here in China handed me a copy of an English-language newspaper from his country, The Star.
I was flipping through it on the bus when I came across an opinion column where the Malaysian author was talking about how his country sees its diversity of ethnicities and religions as one of its real strengths. To make his points, he tossed quotes into his short article from the U.S. Declaration of Independence and American singer and poet Bob Dylan.
That writer clearly felt his audience would understand the references, although I'm not sure the reverse would be true, that a U.S. newspaper columnist would feel comfortable casually dropping in quotes from Asian artists or political documents.
It's admittedly a casual example, but it made me wonder if, in the long run, our lack of foreign language skill, and the knowledge that comes with that, will hurt us.
Toloken is a Plastics News correspondent based in Hong Kong.