Christopher Lupke, WSU’s first tenured professor of Chinese, is quick to point out that while that represents a 2,250 percent increase, it’s still less than one percent of students at WSU.
But it’s a start.
“What we have in the United States is a gaping knowledge deficit,” said Lupke. “Language is key. Language is key to an unmediated understanding of another culture. We’ve ignored this for too long.”
Eloy Gonzalez, chair of the foreign languages department, said enrollment is up across the board in WSU foreign language courses, an increase of 31 percent in the past five years, but Lupke’s ability to develop interest in Chinese has been remarkable.
“Chinese has grown here in practically unprecedented form,” Gonzalez said.
With the recent hire of another tenure-track faculty member in Chinese language, plus help from graduate student Weigo Cao and Shuxin Lupke, Chris Lupke’s wife, who teaches conversation classes, WSU offers three years of Chinese language, with plans to offer a fourth year. Lupke has submitted a proposal for a Chinese language major, but students also can earn a degree in Asian Studies, which requires two years of any Asian language.
According to Lupke, while some students in his classes are Asian Studies majors, more of them are majoring in fields such as engineering, biosciences, international business or hospitality business management.
That is exactly what leaders at the federal and state level are hoping to encourage.
In January 2006, President George W. Bush proposed spending $114 million next year to launch the National Security Language Initiative, with the goal of “dramatically” increasing the number of Americans learning Arabic, Russian, Hindi, Farsi and Chinese. In 2004, the Department of Defense launched the National Flagship Language Initiative, also with the goal of increasing the number of Americans speaking strategically important foreign languages, and Chinese was chosen for the prototype program.
“The thing that sets Chinese above the others is that it is the only country in the world that politically, militarily, economically is anywhere near the U.S.,” Lupke said. “It isn’t necessarily a threat, but it is a country we need to know about and understand better than we do now.”
Holly Wang, an agricultural economist and associate professor at WSU, said there is no question that there are many more Chinese students learning English than there are Americans learning Chinese, and it shows.
“They know our culture better than we know theirs,” she said, and that has economic implications. “In sales, they know how to sell to us, and we don’t know how to sell to them.”
Key to future jobs
Tom Wahl, director of WSU’s IMPACT Center, spends much of his time helping Washington businesses learn how to sell to China. IMPACT stands for International Marketing Program for Agricultural Commodities and Trade. He agrees that Chinese language is crucial.
“Why is it useful for WSU students to study Chinese?” he wrote in an e-mail from overseas. “In a word — jobs. China has the largest population in the world and in a decade or so is projected to become the world’s largest economy, surpassing the U.S. and Japan.”
According to Wahl, Washington is the most trade-dependent state in the United States, exporting a larger percentage of total state output than any other state.
One in three jobs in Washington depends on exports, he said, and China’s demand for many agricultural products will exceed its ability to produce them, creating opportunities for trade.
“Those who do business with China will need bright, well-educated people who speak the language to help them succeed,” he said.