Here's a question for all parents who have read Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (No. 6 on The New York Times' nonfiction bestseller list) and who worry that maybe they should push their children harder.
Chua has a good point. If you're an American, it's not your parents' world anymore. Her memoir of fiercely demanding, "Chinese-style" parenting describes what's clearly an alternate reality from the TV-watching, video-game-playing, relatively passive child-rearing style often seen in the U.S.
But here's the question: Is your child studying the right foreign language?
Even moderately progressive parents accepted long ago that it's a good idea that their children study some foreign language. It will broaden their worldview to study how people from other countries communicate.
But, most often, studying a foreign language means Spanish, French or German. Nothing wrong with that. Those are still staples of the U.S. education system, still good for making one's way around Europe. Bilingualism or even multilingualism is standard among the educated populations of many countries, and the combination of English and one of these languages will open many doors.
But maybe you want your kid to be prepared to master the demands of the increasingly global society we keep hearing about. We're addicted to comparing our schools and their graduates with those in other parts of the world and moaning about how we're far from the top.
So where are the needs for more language skills? Not a hard question to answer.
China: lender of choice for the United States, a booming and modernizing economy, 1.3 billion people. Official language: Mandarin.
India: an always growing economy, vast work force, 1.2 billion people. Official language: Hindi.
And where does the U.S. need perhaps the most help in building its national knowledge base and bridging cultural divides? The 25 countries in the Middle East and North Africa where the native languages are forms of Arabic.
U.S. educators recognize the need for diversified foreign language offerings.
The Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district is among the leaders with its International Business Initiative program. Since 2007, H-E-B has offered Mandarin and Hindi classes to students beginning in seventh grade. Those who joined these classes four years ago are now sophomores at Bell and Trinity high schools, and the district plans to add classes for them through their senior years.
Coming next fall: classes in Arabic, completing the list of the critical three.
Many adults immediately shy away because these languages use scripts that are vastly different from our 26-letter alphabet. Mandarin has about 3,000 symbols, although you can get by if you recognize only about half of them.
Not a problem, says Bhavani Parpia, who runs the H-E-B program. "The kids don't worry so much about it."
It's just easier if you're young, as is the whole language-learning process, she says.
"They don't worry about making a mistake. They're young enough to take a chance," Parpia said.
Another piece of good news for parents: no tiger moms necessary. The students in these classes have chosen to be there. They can switch to learning another language if they want.
Parents also might be interested to learn that there are often scholarship opportunities available for students who continue to study these languages in college.
Some people in the Mansfield school district caused a stir recently when the district announced plans to offer Arabic studies at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Some feared that the district might be teaching Islam. Mansfield's plan has since been delayed.
H-E-B's program is language-focused, Parpia said. Of course, when you study a language, you can't help but learn some about the culture of the people who speak it. What are H-E-B students learning about those people?
"We're not that different," Parpia said. "We may live halfway around the world, but we're not that different."
That's a good lesson.