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On Bilingualism and Mandarin in Minnetonka, Minnesota

April 6, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama

I had no choice in being exposed to bilingualism, since my parents spoke both Japanese and English.

Although I don’t remember, my first language was most likely Japanese, as my late mother spoke to me more during my baby-infant period (hence, the term “mother tongue”). Later in life, I chose to be bilingual, as I enjoyed speaking Japanese and English (I know of many individuals who cannot speak the language of their mother and/or father, due to many reasons, and it is a challenge to retain a foreign language while one’s childhood friends only speak English – yet so many people have confessed to me that their greatest regret was that they were unable to carry on a conversation in Japanese or Ilocano or Cantonese or German – with their family, their loved ones).

During my childhood I would often tell a joke first in English, then re-tell the joke in Japanese or vice-versa. Often I would not have a word or phrase, and my father would come up with equivalent (in either language) – and so my sensitivity to language and communications grew. Bilingualism also gave me insights to speaking to people who spoke English as a second or third language.

In my years living aboard in Japan, my Japanese fluency was an asset for various organizations. In my extensive business interactions in China, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and India, many Asian business people remarked how easy it was to comprehend my English, since after assuming that the other person was not a native English speaker, I would restrict my use of slang, proverbs, or maxims (so confusing to a non-native English speaker). So in my overseas business career ironically I did better in English communications (sales and marketing) since I was a bilingual speaker.

Ultimately, being bilingual has made my life far richer, deeper and memorable in many ways, including life-long communications with my uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins, friends, and on a higher level, a greater appreciation of Japanese culture, traditions, society.

In Hawai’i society, being bilingual by many is recognized as a positive skill. Many people have complimented me on my fluency in Japanese. Yet, there are many in Hawai’i society who do not value speaking more languages other than fluent standard English -- in economic terms. Aside from real estate deals with Japanese investors (now few and far between) or selling more Johnny Walker Blue at the Airport Duty Free shop, speaking Japanese is not a huge advantage in contemporary Hawai’i society*.

In a similar vein, speaking fluent Hawaiian is not related to XYZ% higher lifetime incomes, and is seen by some (again, thinking only in economic terms) to only give an edge when writing Hawaiian songs or conversing with kupuna or elders. Of course, there are different reasons why an individual spends years learning a language. And conversing with kupuna may be the greatest positive reason for an individual to learn Hawaiian: the insights from kupuna may transform a person’s life to make significant contributions to society.

The perception remains – and is a crucial stumbling block -- that law, finance, medicine or engineering are much more valued fields of study rather than years invested studying another foreign language, like French or German or Hawaiian.

In the late 19th century King Kalakaua (he is my favorite royal Hawaiian figure, as my intermediate school was named after him) and Queen Liliuokalani must have spoken fluent Hawaiian and English (the Hawai’i State constitution lists two official State languages: English and Hawaiian**).

The first Mayor of the City and County of Honolulu – Joseph Fern (my elementary school was named after him) – was to have been fluent in several languages, including English, Hawaiian, Cantonese, and Portuguese. Hawaiian “immersion” schools*** have been launched during the last decade, yet suffer from what some people perceive would be a lack of opportunities for students in Hawai’i without a high degree of English fluency (why can’t students learn both Hawaiian and English perfectly seems never to have occurred to some critics – and also learn software engineering, sustainable agriculture, physics, traditional double-hull canoe design, and celestial navigation).

Also, many immigrant families from the Philippines, Tonga, or Hong Kong may be more focused on English fluency in the educational system. Given all the issues of bilingualism, bilingual education, in Hawai’i, a “melting-pot” of so many different ethnic groups, cultures, and languages, it is surprising to hear of a small city named Minnetonka, with barely 50,000 residents, eight miles west of Minneapolis in cold Minnesota, a far-north State, has launched Mandarin and Spanish language immersion in its public kindergarten classes. Not that Minnetonka’s population is half-Chinese and half-Hispanic. Far from it: according to the last U.S. Census, the “the racial makeup” of Minnetonka was “94.40% White, 1.50% African American, 0.20% Native American, 2.29% Asian, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 0.57% from other races, and 1.03% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race was 1.28% of the population.”

The Minnetonka public school Web site declares that “Chinese is spoken by one-fifth of the world’s population - ranked number 1 among first languages spoken.” And here comes the “economic” reasoning:

Since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, both our State and Federal government have made Chinese language and culture an important educational investment. The growing economic presence of China will only make it more of a factor in commerce. Currently, China holds the largest portion of American debt and is quickly becoming one of the world's economic superpowers. Many Minnetonka businesses regularly conduct business with China.

But wait -- Chinese language programs were not begun overnight: “Minnetonka has a longstanding positive history teaching Chinese for over 20 years and was one of the first districts in Minnesota to offer Chinese as a world language. Today, more than 150 middle and high school students study Chinese in Minnetonka.”

And for Spanish: “The Spanish language is the most common second language in the United States, and the fourth most commonly spoken language in the world (after English, Chinese and Hindustani). It is an official language on four continents and a frequent second language in Europe. The Hispanic population is the fastest growing demographic within the United States.”

Economic rationale here: “This presents great domestic opportunities, as well as career opportunities for bilingual professionals. As countries in Latin America are strengthening and expanding their economies, they are becoming more important as trading partners. Many countries in Latin America have signed or are on the verge of signing on to NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), which was originally set up by the United States, Canada and Mexico. This should act to further strengthen trade and business ties between these countries and the U.S. – making the Spanish language an even more important asset for Americans in the business world.”

The Minnetonka PR reflects the current young parents’ drive for “something more”, a “differentiator” for their children (in their future world, where Mandarin and Spanish will play enormous roles in global commerce, advertising, investment). In the Web site, the school declares: “If learning a second language during elementary school is an important value for your family, enroll in kindergarten language immersion!

The Minnetonka kindergarten Web site also points out that language immersion is not new, as “Immersion has been used in Canada for over 35 years. Immersion schools in the United States are gaining popularity as an effective method of language learning. In reality the immersion concept has been around for thousands of years since it is the way all of us learn our native language. In immersion, language learning is done in such a natural way that students are comfortable with the instruction. Children are excellent mimics. They are eager, curious and less self-conscious than adults in experimenting with and acquiring new languages.”

Of course Immersion is not an option for every kindergarten child, as some parents would like their children to be proficient in English first. The Web site points out that the Immersion program is designed for “children of families who do not speak Spanish or Chinese”. This model is the converse of my father at Maui High, as the goal was to create an English-speaking population on Maui -- my grandparents did not speak English and relied on their children to navigate government offices and the corner grocery store.

Unbelievably, 100% of ALL Immersion kindergarten teaching is in the second language. Naturally, five or six-year olds “will naturally ask questions in English, but teachers will most often respond in the second language (with many gestures, pictures, and visual cues)”. Kindergarten is not the end of language immersion: “During first and second grade, students begin having art, music, physical education and media center time with specialists in those areas; specials are taught in English. In third grade, formal instruction begins in English (about 25% of classroom instruction).”

Now, immersion in Chinese or Spanish takes a unique set of parents for a long-term commitment. The children will speak entirely in English at home, yet the parents shall encourage the use of the second language outside of school.

The goal is for students to speak the second language fluently. They will also have “strong enough reading, writing, and listening skills to master the core academic subjects in the second language” – that is, Caucasian or African-American or Native American or Hispanic-looking children who are fluent in Mandarin Chinese or Spanish when they are twelve years old. A huge risk, challenge, yet these graduates may be unique American business leaders or government officials in the Brave New World of 2035 A.D. – President Herbert Hoover, from Iowa and a fluent Mandarin-speaker, will approve heartily.

Finally, is there a lesson from cold, northern Minnetonka for Hawai'i?

*Many Samoan, Hawaiian, Filipino and Vietnamese students in my relative’s Japanese language course at a Honolulu high school speak of their parents’ insistence that one way to “get ahead” in the Waikiki hotel and hospitality business is to “learn Japanese”. So Japanese fluency has economic advantages to some groups in Hawai’i (but ironically not to some Nikkei, who pursue engineering or law – fields requiring high English fluency).

**U.S. citizens are surprised that English is NOT the national official language (whenever a politician proposes to add a constitutional amendment for “English First”, states’ rights proponents usually squash the advocate). Out of 50, 27 American States have English as their official language, plus Hawaii (where Hawaiian is of equal stature) -- foreigners are very surprised to see U.S. election ballots in many languages, not only in Hawai'i, but also in California, Texas et al. -- implying English fluency is not a prerequisite for U.S. citizenship. Many early U.S. Presidents spoke and read other languages, including James Madison, whose family spoke French extensively at home. President Martin van Buren is the only President whose first language was not English – he was raised in a Dutch-speaking family and learned English later in school. President Herbert Hoover and his wife spent years in China and whenever they did not want other White House staff to eavesdrop, they spoke in Mandarin Chinese with each other. So the assumption of English-only speaking U.S. leaders is not altogether correct.

***One Hawaiian immersion school football team spoke all their football plays in huddles completely in Hawaiian. If the opposing team overheard the quarterback’s plays, they would not have understood anything, unless, of course, they studied Hawaiian. In other words, Hawaiian is adaptable with a modern American sport.


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