At a Chinese restaurant, third grader Catherine Conway surprised the waiter by speaking to him in his own language.
"He was so happy, he gave me extra fortune cookies," she says.
While most American children don't start language study until middle school, Catherine began Chinese in kindergarten at Potomac Elementary in Rockville, Md., which offers a Chinese immersion program.
But Catherine's school is the exception and, given China's status as an emerging superpower and trading partner, that leaves US business and government leaders wondering where future Chinese-proficient Americans will come from. Despite the fact that Chinese is the most widely spoken language on the planet - there are 874 million native speakers of Chinese, compared with 341 million of English - only 50,000 American school
children study it. Like Arabic, Chinese is a critical language, and without an emerging generation of Chinese speakers, the US faces growing holes in intelligence gathering, trade relations, and cultural understanding.
At the same time, some cash-strapped schools are cutting back or eliminating foreign language in lower grades. In order to meet stricter standards in math, science, and English, schools shift dollars toward those subjects. Language experts say this reduces the pool of students prepared for advanced study.
As an incentive, the College Board recently added Chinese to its roster of Advanced Placement programs for high school students. In an unusual move, the Chinese government has promised to pick up half the $1.4 million it will cost to develop the program, which won't be available until 2006.
In December, Rep. Rush Holt (D) of New Jersey introduced legislation called the National Security Language Act, which would increase federal investment in foreign-language study.
But language experts say that while these efforts are worthy, they're not enough.
"We really can't understand other people without speaking their language," says Marty Abbott, past president of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. "If we don't learn that, we will continue to be a resented populace."
Historically, Americans have felt little compulsion to learn other languages.
"Because of our geography, we've never had the compelling need to work in multiple languages," Ms. Abbott says, "unlike Europeans, who must cross borders all the time."
Americans expect everyone else to learn English, and to some extent, that happens. China, for example, mandates English instruction beginning in third grade. Some countries start children learning English at age 6 .
Contrast that with US schools, in which most language study starts in middle or high school.
In fact, US enrollment in foreign languages declined from 16 percent of students in 1965 to 8 percent in 1994, and has remained level since then. But more telling, enrollment in the languages considered critical to national security, including Chinese, accounts for less than 10 percent of these enrollments, according to the National Foreign Language Center.
Americans seem to need a crisis to jog their interest in languages, whether it's the launch of Sputnik in 1957, or the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.
"The attention span of Americans is relatively short," says Xiaoxin Wu, director of the Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History at the University of San Francisco.
Such a crisis mentality hasn't been good for foreign-language departments, as certain languages tend to become the "flavor of the month." For example, classes in Russian, which were thriving in the 1980s, have dwindled since the Soviet Union's breakup. Japanese language study has leveled off as Japan's once mighty economy has stalled.
American interest in China has risen and fallen over the decades, paralleling the news. Today, with China's entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, and its role as intermediary between North and South Korea, interest has picked up, and may peak in 2008 when China hosts the Olympic Games.
But foreign language advocates continue to face an uphill battle. Glastonbury High School recently celebrated its 40th year of Russian language instruction, but Christine Brown, director of foreign language programs for the Glastonbury, Conn., schools says many language departments in other schools must, with each round of budget cuts, produce new studies reiterating the benefits of language instruction - better grades and cognitive skills, stronger English language skills.
Teachers would add a fourth benefit: cultural sensitivity.
"I have seen how much hearing their language means to other people," says Abbott. "When Americans want to learn their language, it validates them as a people."