Back in the early spring, an unusual bout of muddle-headedness afflicted my usually clear-headed daughter Kayla. She was choosing the classes she will take in her first year of high school, and she couldn’t decide which language to choose. So far, she has had a couple of years of French study, and an exposure to Italian. Her first plan was to switch to Spanish. (“Sounds good,” said her mother. “Spanish is so useful for Americans, and you’ll easily pick it up because of your knowledge of French and Italian.”) A few days later, she wavered. Maybe she would stick with French. (“Also a good choice. French is spoken in so many different countries, including Canada,” said her mother.) Days pass. More wavering.

This went on for about two weeks until the day she came home with her head completely cleared. “I figured out which language to study.” “Which one — French or Spanish?” asked her unsuspecting mother. “Neither. I’m going to take Chinese.”

Huh? Where did that come from? Kayla patiently explained that nearly two billion people speak Chinese, and more Americans should learn it. And, in fact, she was preaching to the choir. I studied Mandarin in college, and lived in Beijing for two years, though I also studied Spanish (in high school) and French (high school and a semester in college). My husband and I took Kayla and her brother to China three years ago, and both of them picked up a few phrases. So, Chinese it is. I’m really excited about her choice, and I’m looking forward to dusting off some of my skills.

Just as our town’s high school has added languages that go beyond the traditional Eurocentric offerings, more and more Fletcher students have decided to study languages that were rarely pursued by applicants when I first started to work in Admissions. In recent years, for example, the number of applicants who list Arabic as their second language has grown enormously. And we see a great number of Mandarin speakers, as well as students who have been drawn toward in-the-news regional languages, such as Pashto. It hasn’t been a gradual change, either. More of a seismic shift. No longer is there only one non-native speaker of Arabic or Mandarin — instead, we will have business-related classes offered in those languages to native and non-native speakers alike. Quite a change from the days when language study in the U.S. was largely limited to French, Spanish, and maybe one other option!

 

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