Q&A: A focus on China, but real goal: Expand perspectives about world

Date: 7/8/2008

Robert Davis is director of the Confucius Institute in Chicago, which promotes Chinese language and culture and is housed in Walter Payton College Prep High School. It opened in 2006. The institute is a partnership between Chicago Public Schools' Office of Language and Cultural Education, the Chinese government's Office of Chinese Language Council International and East China Normal University in Shanghai, China.

The Institute coordinates the Chicago Public Schools' Chinese-language program, which is in 38 schools. It offers workshops for parents, including those with adopted Chinese children, and various activities for students.Confucius Institutes are around the globe, from Seoul to London to Nairobi. The Institute at Walter Payton is the only one in a high school.

Q. Chicago public schools today claim to have more than 7,000 students studying Chinese, the largest program of its kind in the country. And the district has plans to expand its foreign-language curriculum to more students next year, in Chinese, Arabic and Russian. This apparently will be paid for by cutting elsewhere in the budget. How did the Chinese-language program come to be such a high priority in Chicago?

A. The Chinese-language program basically came from parent demand. In 1999, there were parents who joined together who wanted more Asian content in Chicago Public Schools. Chinese is the most spoken language in the world, and China is the fastest-growing economy in the world, and we want to make sure our students have the skills they need to succeed, especially if they are going to be involved in international business.

And [Chicago] Mayor Daley is very enthusiastic about students learning Chinese, Arabic and Russian, because he understands that in order for Chicago to be a truly international city - which is the goal, we want to be the international American city - we need a work force trained to speak international languages.We also want to expand perspectives for students about the rest of the world, even if they never use Chinese after they're out of school.

Q. China requires students to learn English. Given all the talk about the rise of Asia, should every American student learn to speak Chinese?

A. No, absolutely not, but every American student should learn to speak a second language. I don't think everyone should learn anything. But it is time for all students to have knowledge of a second language beyond two years in high school.

Again, multilingualism has become one of those skills that's very sought after in any profession.

Q. A lot of children learning Chinese in Chicago are Hispanic, so this is a third language for some of them?

A. Yes, for some of them it is, which is tremendous. It does surprise people. I have found that working with the Latino community has been so wonderful. No ethnic group in Chicago understands the power of second-language acquisition as well as Latinos.

Q. Is it hard to find good Chinese-language teachers?

A. It is not hard to find highly qualified teachers (except perhaps in rural areas). But they do not meet No Child Left Behind requirements because their teaching certificates were not issued in the United States. So they have to go and become certified. Or there are temporary certificates that states can create for visiting teacher programs, but that is different from state to state.

Q. I saw this quote attributed to you: "The days of everybody trying to be American are over. When you do business or go to other countries, be prepared to work on their terms." Would you explain what you meant by that?

A. In the '90s, when I started going to China, I would go for meetings and they would bring out the one person who really spoke English to conduct the meeting and showcase that person. Nowadays when I go to China, the meetings are in Chinese. Countries more and more, especially in East Asia, are embracing their own identity rather than trying to become like another country. It's not anti-American; it's pro their own identity. It's good to have a national identity. The people who are really successful in those situations are the people who can work with both sides because they speak the languages and they know the customs.

Q. Could you recommend a best book to learn about Chinese culture for a first-time visitor?

A. I learned on the ground. I didn't get a book. Definitely the first lesson I learned in China was patience. When you are in China, you have to change to the Chinese pace, which sometimes is fast and sometimes is slow, but is never going to be like America. That is a challenge.

And I learned that relationships in China are the most important thing - through working and being the new guy in a work unit in China. I worked in a department at a university. When you are the new guy, you really come in with nothing. The people who are really successful are not necessarily the richest people, but the people who have cultivated the best relationships.

[Davis later e-mailed the names of several books, including "Doing Business in China for Dummies," by Robert Collins and Carson Block, and "Lonely Planet China," by Damian Harper. He added that personally he has learned the most by reading Chinese classics, particularly "Dream of the Red Chamber," by Cao Xueqin, "Dao De Jing," by Lao Zi, and "The Analects," by Confucius.]

Q. There has been criticism that the Chinese government is trying to expand its influence by promoting Confucius Institutes, that Chinese-donated textbooks could include misleading cultural and historical messages. What do you say to that?

A. I would say that in my experience that has not been true. Certainly China is opening Confucius Institutes around the world to spread Chinese culture and language. That is a model around the world, such as Alliance Francaise or the Cervantes Institute from Spain. So China is using the Confucius Institutes to spread their influence as much as any country has, but we're not indoctrinating people.

As far as textbooks are concerned, we are thrilled to receive textbooks from China because there are so few available in this country. And as far as questionable political content, we have reviewed the textbooks, and we have never found anything that makes us uncomfortable. These are books that are aimed at third-graders. The bottom line is there is paranoia about China, as there always is about any fast-developing country.

It's all about collaboration and not about competition. I worry about that because Chinese language is such a new field in the United States that even among other foreign languages being taught there is a sense of competition. Foreign-language professionals need to work together to increase foreign-language capacity in the United States.

2008 > July > Q&A: A focus on China, but real goal: Expand perspectives about world