Pop quiz: How do you say "hello" in Mandarin?
Over the next three years, public school children in Macon, Ga., will be required to answer that question. The district has just mandated courses in Mandarin Chinese for every K-12 student to be phased in over time starting with the youngest children, reports NPR.
Local officials say the move is practical: By 2050, when many of these children will be at the height of their careers, China and India are predicted to account for about half of the world's gross domestic product (GDP). The school system is looking to a local Chinese language center, the Confucious Institute, for teachers.
"They will live in a world where, if they cannot function successfully in the Asian culture, they will pay a heavy price," Romain Dallemand, the superintendent of the Bibb County school system, told NPR.
But, as you might expect, the move is creating controversy. After all, this is a district where most of the 25,000 students qualify for free or reduce lunches. What's more, about half of the kids won't graduate.
"Bibb County is not known for producing the highest-achieving graduates," one Macon resident told NPR. "You'll see that many of them can't even speak basic English."
The move, which apparently was a surprise, raises the question of what languages should be taught or required in U.S. schools.
Compared with other leading economies, people who graduate from the U.S. public school system aren't usually fluent in any language other than English, even though that isn't officially the language of the United States, only the de facto one. Yet, in an increasingly global economy, being able to converse in another language will be incredibly important.
Over the weekend, my father (a Canadian who speaks French and Portuguese) related a story to me about a speech he gave in Brazil at a business conference about the cocoa industry. He delivered about half of his talk in the country's language, which freaked out the American attendees and got a standing ovation from everywhere else -- because he took the time to try.
That incident was at least 25 years ago, and over time the need for businesspeople to become much more sensitive to other cultures and languages has become all the more acute.
Personally, I think we do a disservice to children if we don't require some sort of language fluency when they graduate from the public school system.
Even if a child doesn't have an interest in the global economy, this would have incredible value at home. In the airport last week, I saw an airport ticket agent translating information for a Chinese tourist. Later, when I was visiting a family member in a Florida hospital, several of the nurses switched back and forth between English and Spanish multiple times during the few hours I was there.
Which language to learn is a much thornier question.
Spanish is the second most widely used language spoken in the United States but the influence of Asian and Pacific island languages is on the rise. In mid-2010, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that approximately 20 percent of the population speaks some language other than English at home.
Should language choices be made based on the demographic make-up of the district in which a public school is located or focused on what might be helpful in a future career? That's a question that more schools will be pondering in the future, along with all the other choices they will need to make.