Could there be a bigger sign of the times than the recent announcement by the Swedish education minister that all Swedish schools should be teaching Chinese in primary and secondary school?
“I want to see Sweden become the first country in Europe to introduce instruction in Chinese as a foreign language at all primary and secondary schools,” said Jan Bjoerklund, who heads the Liberal Party, a junior member of the centre-right ruling coalition.
Getting Swedish pupils to learn Chinese was vital to strengthening Swedish competitiveness, the education minister told financial daily Dagens Industri.
“Not everyone in the business world speaks English. Very highly qualified activities are leaving Europe to move to China. Chinese will be much more important from an economic point of view than French or Spanish,” he said.
I remember back in the late 90s working with consumer goods executives on the future of globalization. Back then, globalization meant all good things, and no complications: bigger markets! cheaper labor! And how ’bout that Chinese market? You only gotta get 2% of it and yer rich!
I recall working in a breakout session, asking these executives if they could imagine any potential complications. For example, if 20% of their market was in China, could they imagine what it would be like to require professionals who were fluent in Mandarin? Y’know, since it’s nice to talk to your customers in their own language once in a while. Not that everybody would read and write Chinese, but a significant number of executives who made it their business to speak the language. And maybe even some Mandarin-speaking customer service offices in North America. Just a what-if.
This being America in the 1990s, they looked at me as if I were asking if they could imagine that they would need to juggle chainsaws while dressed in SCUBA gear and singing showtunes. Us learn Chinese? Why would anybody do that?
Why would we do that? Well, the same reason we learn reading, writing, dentistry, bass playing, speech therapy, whatever: there’s money in it. Nobody woke up this morning in Uppsala and said, “Wow, we have this lovely country and our own distinct language – I really feel like learning a language with 50,000 complex written characters and tones that make words impossible to pronounce! Just for laughs!”
They are in it for the money. They see where the action is heading. It’s not headed west.