The Global Economic Impact on Language Learning Trends: Who is Learning what in China, Japan, and the U.S.?

For many, it comes as no surprise that the scales of language study for business have been tipping between Japan and China among Americans. Though Japan’s ‘lost decade’ is supposedly over, the country is still feeling the effects of the bubble economy’s pop. Before the burst in the late 1980s there was a noticeably higher demand for Americans to learn Japanese for business purposes than there is today. While such motivation still exists, the past several years have witnessed a burgeoning interest in Chinese language study among Americans.

A 2005 article published by School Board News reported that an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 K-12 students in America were studying Chinese at the time of its publication. It goes on to quote Thomas Matt, director of the world languages initiative at the College Board, as saying “the numbers about Chinese language instruction are so tiny that I don’t think anyone’s tracking it very carefully”. However, the report released at the conclusion of the National Conference on Chinese Language Programs in the United States, held in April of 2008, found that enrollment in Chinese language programs in the U.S. “has grown by almost 200 percent since tallies were last taken in 2004. Additionally, in the year between 2005 and 2006, the number of students at the higher education level who were learning Chinese jumped by 52 percent”. Chinese language study abroad is booming proportionately to the nation’s economy, and there are no signs of either slowing any time soon.

A study conducted by the Japan Foundation in 2007 found that less that 120,000 Americans were then learning Japanese, mostly for purposes of cultural exchange, but also for academic endeavors and future employment prospects. The same study found that nearly 685,000 Chinese were learning Japanese, and that the primary reason was planning for future employment. Given this disparity, as well the fact that China’s economic star is rising as Japan’s and America’s fall, it may seem that the economic relationship between Japan and the U.S. could suffer as China displaces the top two global economic powers. The state of Japanese and American cultural exchange is not as bleak as it may seem by proxy, however. The 23rd Plenary Session of the US-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange (CULCON) recognized the two countries’ increasingly tenuous relationship and recommended strengthening “networks and dialogues between public intellectuals of the two countries” as well as stimulating “interest of Americans, especially the young, in Japan, including through expanding Japanese language education”. The report also emphasizes the importance of the arts to cultural exchange.

The shared economic turmoil between Japan and the U.S. could strengthen bonds, however, rather than weaken them. Both nations are currently going through a credit and mortgage crisis. Both nations’ auto industries are suffering. In December of last year, several large media outlets such as the New York Times began looking towards Japan as a model for the U.S. to steer through these tough economic times. And so while business isn’t necessarily booming, there is still a strong impetus to for Americans and Japanese to learn each other’s languages.

Naturally, these trends not only affect the motivation and number of Americans studying foreign languages, but the motivation and number of nonnative speakers studying English. These considerations beg the question: what effects will the current global economic dynamic have on the ESL and EFL fields? Steve Kaufmann, founder of, posted a video on his site in December in which he predicts an impending decline of English as a prestige language. Kaufmann attributes this decline to the sense that English is the dominant world language and the conception that the current crisis began in the English-speaking world. Depending on international political attitude, Kaufmann argues, there is no reason why there should not be four or five international languages. English may not have to step down per se, only make more room at the top of the pile.

One need not consult the experts to see the possible effect hard economic times can have on language learning, however. A perusal of language learning forums and on-line discussion boards over the past few months reveals apprehensions about the cost of language classes (which for many are a secondary form of education) as well as the likelihood of international travel. On the other hand, many people look for employment abroad during these tough times. Kelly Blackwell, an EFL teacher abroad, recommends in a November, 2008 article in The ELT Times that other English teachers should teach abroad to avoid hard times. Not everyone can take their work overseas, however, and the numbers that do are hardly enough to offset the number of people who can’t afford to study a foreign language for personal reasons or who have a difficult time justifying the need for learning one. There seems to be a sense of conservative learning that parallels conservative spending.

It is clear that the motivations for learning a language, when observed from a macro perspective, are impacted by global economics. If international policy makers and foreign language professionals play their cards right, however, reasons and students can be found to learn any language, helping to balance the ever tipping scale. The best thing we can do to help promote language learning and cultural exchange when facing such challenges is to stress the intrinsic value of these endeavors and promote multilingualism and multiculturalism as a solution to a global economic predicament rather than a reaction against it.


2 Comments on “The Global Economic Impact on Language Learning Trends: Who is Learning what in China, Japan, and the U.S.?

  1. Pingback: Chinese Language Programs Blossoming in U.S. Schools « ACEBook – Associates in Cultural Exchange Blog

  2. When one considers the huge investment that learning a foreign language requires (time, money, effort), and the fact that the label of ‘international language’ or better ‘predominent business language’ varies with the relative economic important of the underlying countries, wouldn’t be a better choice to promote and learn a truly international language, such as Esperanto, which would be much easier to learn and truly neutral?

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