Saturday, April 28, 2007

China vs. India: Can America Compete?

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has a video report on his theory of who will be the world leader economically in 2100. In it, he details how people in rural India are lagging behind: no electricity, schoolteachers who leave their students uneducated and sex slavery that does not seem to be abating for poor and unfortunate girls. Kristof says that China suffers the same problems in rural areas, but that the Chinese educate all their children in math and science very well. Therefore, Kristof says, he is betting on China to be the world leader in 2100.

Kristof says that he is teaching his children Chinese because of his theory.

A lot of writers have theorized that the United States will not be a world power 100 years from now. I have my doubts about that theory. We are an educated country, and the democratization of information through this medium called the internet is also to our advantage. Almost all of the world's patents are created here in the U.S. We still have a good education system and we have a political system that allows us to adapt to a changing social, economic and political landscape. Don't write the U.S. off just yet.

I have said for many years that it is important that every American child learn English and a second language fluently. English is our national language by custom and tradition. But in a world made smaller by instant communication ("flattened" as Thomas Friedman has argued), I think it is important that every American child learn how to communicate with others around the world.

There are multiple reasons for this:

1) Think how much better we could fight terrorism around the world if we had enough Americans who could speak directly to people (and translate for intelligence services) in those languages where terrorists come from (at this time in history that would mainly be Arabic). It wouldn't solve all of the problems, to be sure, because some of the problems are based on religious and cultural differences as well. But being able to speak the language would help break down some of the barriers that we currently have.

2) Learning a language helps break down misunderstandings created by mistakes in translation. There are subtleties in languages that cannot be explained by simple transliterations of words or phrases. Language differences are a natural barrier to trust, friendship and commerce.

3) Speaking a second language would expand our marketability and market share around the world -- increasing our political and economic power. Speaking to someone in their own native language lessens tensions that can be created by being an outsider.

Right now the U.S. does not have the ability to teach every child a second language fluently. But, if we were to set our minds to it and put our money where our minds should be, we could bring people here from all over the world to teach us their language. Doing so would help us fight terrorism, improve international relations and increase our marketability around the world.

I have to admit that I don't speak a second language fluently, but I wish I did. Nicholas Kristof is doing the right thing teaching his children a second language. Now we need to implement that same idea for every American child so that they will be able to compete in the new markets of the future.

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