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Ryckman –Spanish and Chinese – 3/28/05 – 917.509.2186
Jim O’Grady, a journalist and professor at New York University’s graduate
school of journalism, is studying introductory Spanish. At age 44, he has been willing to
invert the traditional student-teacher relationship and commune with undergraduates.
“On Tuesday I’m the boss,” he said, referring to the class he teaches. “On Monday,
Wednesday and Thursday, I’m a cowering underling trying to conjugate irregular verbs
with 19-year-olds.” Across town, Christopher Milla, a 23-year-old legal assistant whose
first language is Spanish, is learning Mandarin.
O’Grady and Milla are part of the increasing number of Americans inclined to
learn Spanish and Chinese. Nancy Jervis of the China Institute on the Upper East Side
said that the number of students taking Chinese classes has more than doubled in recent
years. “We used to have 80 to 90 students and now we have more than 200 adult
students and at least another 100 kids.” Similarly, Rachel Meyer, co-owner and codirector of ABC Language Exchange on West 29th Street, said her program has accepted
an additional 350 students this year, most of whom are studying Spanish and Chinese.
This is due in part to recent waves of immigrants from Spanish- and Chinese-speaking
countries into the United States.
According to the Census Bureau, nearly 1-in-5 U.S. residents, or 47 million
people, age 5 and older claimed to speak a language other than English at home in 2000.
Other than English, Spanish (28.1 million) and Chinese (2 million) were the languages
most frequently spoken. At a time when many of these immigrants are struggling to learn
English, savvy Americans see the advantages – including career advancement in a global
economy and more exciting, diverse travel experiences – to becoming conversant in
languages other than their own. “It’s so easy to speak English throughout the world, but
in order to explore a culture in depth and travel off the beaten path, you need to speak the
language,” Milla said.
Milla’s interest in Chinese culture began during high school when he lived in
Taiwan, where his father’s work as a Latin American diplomat had taken the family. His
international upbringing made him predisposed to explore different ways of life. As a
result, many of Milla’s friends, including his girlfriend, are Taiwanese and he feels a
profound connection to the culture.
Milla, who resumed his Mandarin studies at the ABC Language Exchange, plans
to visit Taiwan frequently and perhaps move there later in life. He would like to pursue a
career in international business or foreign policy and believes his knowledge of Mandarin
will be invaluable as China becomes a major trading power.
Similarly, Braden Rhetts, 31, began studying Chinese at her Minneapolis high
school because she thought it would be the language of the 21st century. Rhetts attended
exchange programs in both China and Japan and majored in Asian Studies at Tufts
University. After college, she took additional Chinese classes at the China Institute
before moving with her husband to Tokyo, where she took a course in Japanese.
Rhetts has been motivated to learn Asian languages by both interest and necessity,
but that doesn’t explain why she is studying Spanish now that she resides in London.
“I’m driven by love!” she laughs, saying that she wants to learn her husband’s mother
tongue and be able to communicate with her Chilean in-laws. However, she also sees the
practical value to Spanish. “It’s so useful. As far as I can tell, pretty much the whole
world speaks either Spanish or Chinese.”
Jim O’Grady chose to learn Spanish later in life for both personal enrichment and
potential professional gains. “If I learn to speak with fluency, it opens up a world of new
sources, which is always good for a journalist,” he said. Additionally, knowing Spanish
might help him better assimilate in his Williamsburg, Brooklyn neighborhood, which has
a high percentage of Puerto Ricans, and will inevitably help him in his travels, both
within and outside the United States.
O’Grady sees a growing awareness on the part of Americans of the need to learn
additional languages. “It’s become fairly obvious in our global age that Mandarin,
Arabic and Spanish are hugely important languages,” he said. Additionally, as our
economy becomes increasingly international, true comprehension of other cultures may
become a necessity, as opposed to a leisure activity reserved for those wealthy enough to
travel. “In the past, (speaking only English) was a luxury we could afford because we
were somewhat isolated and we were an economic power,” O’Grady said. “But with
each passing year, that becomes less possible.”