THE BLOG
12/17/2014 05:34 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2015

Educating for the Future: Learning Mandarin As a Key to U.S.-China Relations

First Lady Michelle Obama made a critical point earlier this year when she told an audience of American and Chinese students at Peking University, "Studying abroad is about so much more than improving your own future. It's also about shaping the future of your countries and of the world we all share." She might have added this: When the study abroad involves mastering the language, the opportunity for "shaping the future" increases exponentially.

The fact that the First Lady said this in Beijing is especially significant, because of all the foreign languages young Americans need to master, Mandarin Chinese ranks in the top tier; indeed, it may be first. Consider the facts: Economists believe it is only a matter of time before China passes the United States as the largest economy on Earth. More than 875 million of China's 1.28 billion people speak Mandarin, and it is also spoken in Taiwan and the influential Chinese communities of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines. That brings the total number of speakers to more than 1 billion -- one-fifth of the planet's population -- making Mandarin the world's most widely spoken first language.

Yes, English will to be the universal language far into the future. Even so, learning languages like Mandarin is imperative. It is a matter of respect for the people with whom we are increasingly engaged in the new global economy. It is also a matter of practical necessity. Communicating with others can be problematic when it has to be done entirely through translators - especially when they are at a second or third tier of proficiency in English. "Lost in Translation" is more than the title of a hit movie.

Clearly then, the U.S. needs to field large numbers of Mandarin speakers in such realms as diplomacy, business, law and academics in order to relate effectively - and compete successfully - with this emerging world power. It is not too much to say that our nation's future prosperity depends on how well we Americans do in the Mandarin-learning business.

At my school, Hunter College in New York City, we take this challenge very seriously. Hunter is one of 11 colleges and universities (10 of them, including Hunter, public) designated as a Chinese Flagship Center, an initiative of the National Security Education Program. We offer an intensive four-year program in Mandarin that students pursue along with another non-language major. It includes funding for two stays in China-a summer trip and a final, capstone year spent studying at a Chinese university and working as an intern with a Chinese organization. Graduates are certified as having Professional Language Proficiency in Mandarin. In the three years since the program began, total enrollment has more than tripled.

Public colleges and universities like Hunter have a particularly important role to play, because learning Mandarin should be an opportunity available to students from every kind of background, not the privilege of an elite few. This is a core issue for Hunter, which has students from 150 different countries, many of modest means and the first in their families to attend college. Our goal is to see this extraordinary diversity reflected in our Chinese language program.

The in-country component of our program is its keystone. Mastering the four tones of the Mandarin language can be extremely difficult, and so practicing in Chinese-speaking surroundings is crucial. And while the term "student ambassador" may seem like something of a cliché, it points to an important truth: Students living overseas and sharing in the daily life of their host country become the familiar, nonthreatening face of their homeland. Over time, as hosts and guests rub shoulders day in and day out, and as a web of cross-cultural relationships is formed, it becomes easier for both sides to recognize their shared humanity and more difficult to sustain suspicions grounded in isolation and ignorance.

Hunter expects to produce a growing stream of graduates who are fully prepared to put their knowledge of Mandarin and their familiarity with Chinese society to valuable use. They may become international lawyers or political scientists or software engineers or translators or architects. Whatever they do, they will contribute to the ongoing US-China dialogue that is crucial to mutual understanding and prosperity.

And, bottom line, a large cohort of Mandarin speakers will contribute to our national security, helping guide U.S.-Chinese relations away from the confrontational and toward the cooperative. That's why the program is called National Security Education. That's why it is one of the best and most cost-effective investments America can make in its higher education system. And that is why it deserves the nation's recognition and continuing support.