Nicholas Kristof has a NY Times op-ed column "Primero Hay Que Aprender Espanol. Ranhou Zai Xue Zhongwen," which argues (here):
Look, I’m a fervent believer in more American kids learning Chinese. But the language that will be essential for Americans and has far more day-to-day applications is Spanish. Every child in the United States should learn Spanish, beginning in elementary school; Chinese makes a terrific addition to Spanish, but not a substitute.
Spanish may not be as prestigious as Mandarin, but it’s an everyday presence in the United States — and will become even more so. Hispanics made up 16 percent of America’s population in 2009, but that is forecast to surge to 29 percent by 2050, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center.
As the United States increasingly integrates economically with Latin America, Spanish will become more crucial in our lives. More Americans will take vacations in Latin America, do business in Spanish, and eventually move south to retire in countries where the cost of living is far cheaper.
I disagree, and made the following comment on his op-ed (It's number 40):
This is an unfortunate op-ed. With China poised to challenge the US as the world's superpower over the lifetime of today's children, we need to pull out all stops to get more of our next generation to learn Mandarin and to study abroad in China. 1-2%, or even 5%, is not enough. The most important decision our next generations may have to make is whether to go to war with China or not. They are not well prepared to make that decision.
Also, it's is not enough to study languages in school. Students need to go to China. In many states and school districts the cost of educating a high school student in-district for one year is greater than the cost to send them for a high school year in China through one of the existing study abroad organizations. Yet, no public school districts in the US pay for high school study abroad programs. Here in Oregon, where we have had proposed legislation to permit local school districts to use the funds they get from the state to pay for sending high school students to study abroad, such proposals have been opposed by the educational establishment, especially the teachers union. In this, I believe, the teachers unions are increasing the probability of war with China. As I say to teachers here, you can't be both for peace and against paying for study abroad in China.
Spanish, as Kristof points out, is both easier to learn and useful. But as cohorts, our next generations will have plenty of bilingual Spanish-English members, there will be far, far fewer bilingual Mandarin-English members - and that is a very risky situation.
I'd further say that I think Kristof is a bit out of touch with what is happening with foreign language instruction in US schools. Yes, there is growth of Mandarin programs, but Spanish is growing too. There are far, far more Spanish programs than Mandarin program in Oregon. Utah, for another example, is mainstreaming immersion programs, adding 10-15 new Spanish, Mandarin or French immersion programs each year.
Kristof, as my comment indicates, seems far more interested in advice to an individual student than advice to public educators about which language programs to provide. I think if he looked at the numbers relating to current foreign language programs then he would have different ideas.
And, finally, much as Kristof is an advocate of study abroad, he has not yet realized that in public high school education we have the funds and organizational structure to send (as in pay for) many, many more high school students abroad, to China and Spanish-speaking countries and everywhere.