Non-English Foreign Language Capability in U.S. and China

How many non-English translators and simultaneous interpreters are needed when around 1,500 delegates, including 28 heads of states, from 130 countries attended the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing?

When the non-English speaking leaders talk, you need direct translation between Chinese and, say, Turkish for President Erdogan, Malay for Prime Minister (PM) Razak, Polish for PM Duda, Greek for PM Tsipras, Spanish for PM Macri, Swahili for President Kenyatta, and so on. It means China needs a huge and diversified team of non-English linguistic professionals to provide accurate and timely communication service not just for business but also political and cultural purposes in very long term.

A country’s foreign language capability is not merely for translation, it is one of the key national strengths for growth and global leadership. Here is a useful perspective from Professor Charles King, Chair of the Dept of Government at Georgetown University, for our consideration:

“The rise of the United States as a global power was the product of more than merely economic and military advantages. Where the country was truly hegemonic was in its unmatched knowledge of the hidden interior of other nations: their languages and cultures, their histories and political systems, their local economies and human geographies.”

However, Prof. King expressed his concern on the American situation: “… enrollment in foreign-language courses at U.S. colleges fell by 6.7 percent between 2009 and 2013. Most language programs experienced double-digit losses… Today, the third most studied language in U.S. higher education, behind Spanish and French, is a homegrown one: American Sign Language…”

What is even worse is that the achievement of the National Security Education Program (NSEP), which was established in 1991 to offer students financial assistance for foreign-language study and cultural immersion, is disappointing. In 2014, “the total number of students enrolled in NSEP — Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Swahili, Turkish, Urdu, and Yoruba — was under a thousand.” Furthermore, “more than half of the researchers” of international relations in America “rarely or never cite non-English sources in their work”.

When a nation aspires to become a global leader, it needs a high level of foreign language capability of obtaining the “granular and culture-specific knowledge that can make the critical difference between really getting in place and getting it profoundly wrong”. The best example the Americans (and all nations) should learn from is the University of London’s SOAS (The School of Oriental and African Studies) “which focuses on Asian and African studies, is a beehive of languages and causes.” [Note 1]

Former National Security Adviser Susan Rice echoed this danger of decreasing number of non-English speakers in the government. She alarmed the warning in 2016 that there were too many “white, male, and Yale (bear in mind the elitist ‘Skull and Bones’ Society there)” in the halls of power. She taught us how to appreciate the significance of the foreign language capability when managing the multifaceted global challenges: “Intelligence analysts, diplomats and military officers who are native speakers (of languages other than English) may pick up subtle nuances that might otherwise go unnoticed. Diplomats who can read cultural cues may better navigate the political and social currents of a foreign nation”. [Note 2]

China has no wide ethnic diversity equivalent to America’s (about half White and half others), and thus the only alternative is to learn from Britain by equipping its intellectuals and diplomats, generation after generation, with high level of foreign language proficiency.

In China nowadays, there are at least 15 public and 10 private universities or tertiary colleges which are nationally accredited schools specialized in teaching foreign languages and literatures. At the Beijing Language and Culture University, for example, there are as many as 150 majors and 40 post-graduates in the Middle East Dept alone, and in total this school houses 4,000 Chinese and 9,000 international students.

Another significant institution is Shanghai International Studies University which offers the widest coverage of foreign languages including Svenska, Dutch, Ukrainian, Turkish, Hebrew, Persian and Hindi to 6,000 undergraduates and 2,500 post-graduates. Nevertheless, although most Chinese colleges offer Arabic which is also quite common in northern Africa, other major African languages such as Swahili (in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda), Berber (in Morocco and Algeria), Somali, Amharic (in Ethiopia) are unavailable. Moreover, none of China’s university has the attainment that can match with the SOAS.

It takes time for China to catch up. On the eve of the Belt and Road Forum, the Vice-minister of Education informed the public that more than “350,000 Chinese students have studied in countries along the Belt and Road since 2012. In addition, 3,454 Chinese students have studied local languages in Belt and Road countries since 2012.” [Note 3]

Looking forward, the New Silk Road project will be a powerful engine to generate a benign educational cycle — the more prosperous the project is, the more number of students and wider non-English language coverage at the colleges will be; and also a virtuous cultural cycle — the more they learn each other’s languages, the more in-depth understanding of each other’s history, customs and values will be. One encouraging sign is the recent plan of launching the ‘China National Geography’, which covers both Chinese and overseas cultural heritages, in French, German and other languages.

By the time the Chinese foreign language colleges’ curriculum is able to cover all the major non-English working languages in Asia, Africa and eastern Europe, China would catch up with other global leaders and be able to work more constructively with the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and Germany to promote the co-existence values and make more win-win deals worldwide.


By Keith K C Hui,


The 4th Media


[Note 1]

Foreign Affairs, “Charles King: The decline of International Studies”, June 16, 2015.

[Note 2]
The White House, “Susan Rice (National Security Advisor) at the Florida International University 2016 Commencement”, May 11, 2016.

[Note 3]
China Daily, “350,000 Chinese students study in Belt and Road countries”, May

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