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What Malia and Sasha Obama's Parents Know About the Value of Language

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"Mind your manners." "Eat your carrots." "Practice your Mandarin." The first two phrases are often uttered by the average American parents. The last one is heard in far fewer homes, but it could become more popular if the president and the first lady have their way.

In a radio address earlier this month, President Obama focused on his desire to improve America's global competitiveness, stating, "our true measure of progress has to be... whether people in this country can still achieve the American Dream for themselves and their children." But what does language have to do with it? Quite simply, the success of the United States depends directly on its citizens' abilities to develop the skills required in today's global economy. The ability to communicate is chief among them.

Even though China is not yet the world's largest economy, a recent poll reveals that the majority of Americans believe China has already replaced the United States in the top spot. While that has not happened yet, with China quickly climbing the ranks in both linguistic and economic importance, it makes sense that parents want their children to learn to speak the country's most widely used language in order to gain an advantage in life.

Michelle Obama recently spoke to students at Howard University about a program to increase the number of American students who study in China. In her view, when students go abroad, what they learn about language and culture has a direct impact not only on their own futures, but on the strength of the United States. Students at the event who had studied Chinese abroad spoke about their motivations for learning the language.

President Obama learned to speak another important Asian language -- Indonesian -- when he lived abroad as a child. His younger sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, holds a Master's degree in Second Language Studies. And, President and Mrs. Obama's younger daughter, Sasha, recently had the chance to exchange a few words in Mandarin with China's President Hu Jintao during an official visit to the United States. So, the positive effects that speaking a second language can have on one's life are not only preached, but practiced in the Obama household.

The Obamas are literally talking the talk. Unfortunately, convincing more Americans to learn economically critical languages won't be easy. Don't expect the shelves of language learning software to sell out as quickly as the latest dress worn by the First Lady in a public appearance. However, the Obamas clearly know that the "American Dream" requires a global mindset -- and increasingly, a multilingual one.