Man­darin rising

Mil­lions are learn­ing Chi­nese to im­prove job prospects

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By ANTHONY WARREN anthony@chi­nadai­lya­pac.com

If there was ever a time when learn­ing Man­darin Chi­nese was just for fun, it is long gone. As Hong Kong-based teacher Molly Huang noted, stu­dents to­day want to know the lan­guage pri­mar­ily for one rea­son — job prospects.

Huang has seen first­hand the surg­ing in­ter­est in Man­darin. She moved to Hong Kong from South China’s Guang­dong prov­ince to teach the lan­guage and has had a wide va­ri­ety of stu­dents.

With the grow­ing for­eign pres­ence in South China’s fi­nan­cial and com­mer­cial hubs, a lot of busi­ness­peo­ple are now learn­ing, she said.

Other ea­ger pupils in­clude eth­nic Chi­nese from over­seas who aim to re­con­nect with their roots, and Hong Kong peo­ple for whom Can­tonese is the mother tongue.

With so many tak­ing up Chi­nese for busi­ness, what about the ones learn­ing for leisure, for fun?

“I don’t think there are many of those,” Huang said with a laugh.

For more than a cen­tury, English has been the world’s lin­gua franca. From com­merce, to travel, sci­ence and the in­ter­net, its stran­gle­hold has been nearly ab­so­lute.

Many ex­perts now be­lieve that English will face stiff com­pe­ti­tion in the com­ing years. As China helps drive the global economy, a Chi­nese lan­guage craze is sweep­ing the world. Mil­lions are now study­ing Man­darin, the of­fi­cial lan­guage of China and much of the di­as­pora.

While more pri­vate sec­tor busi­ness­peo­ple aim to talk the talk and build guanxi (re­la­tion­ships), gov­ern­ments too are hop­ing to broaden their cit­i­zens’ job prospects. Teach­ing the lan­guage to young stu­dents has be­come a pri­or­ity for many coun­tries.

“The num­ber of for­eign stu­dents who are learn­ing to speak, read and write Chi­nese is greater now than ever be­fore,” said Robert Bauer, an hon­orary pro­fes­sor of lin­guis­tics at the Univer­sity of Hong Kong.

The Can­tonese lan­guage ex­pert has a back­ground in teach­ing and study­ing mi­nor­ity lan­guages within Si­noTi­betan lin­guis­tics.

“Ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems have been in­tro­duc­ing Chi­nese lan­guage pro­grams into el­e­men­tary schools be­cause ed­u­ca­tors know that young stu­dents ab­sorb for­eign lan­guages like a dry sponge soaks up wa­ter,” Bauer said.

In the United States, more than 200 schools now teach Man­darin to el­e­men­tary school stu­dents, a ten­fold in­crease in a decade.

In Septem­ber, Viet­nam re­ported that it would soon in­tro­duce Chi­nese as a com­pul­sory lan­guage in its schools.

Mean­while, across South Africa, 44 schools in­tro­duced Man­darin this year as part of a con­tin­u­ing roll­out.

Ac­cord­ing to Han­ban, the gov­ern­ment de­part­ment that man­ages of­fi­cial over­seas Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tion, 100 mil­lion peo­ple took to study­ing the Chi­nese lan­guage last year, up from fewer than 30 mil­lion in 2006. And many of these learn­ers ap­pear to be in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion.

“I am in­clined to think that Chi­nese will even­tu­ally be­come a sec­ond lan­guage in many parts of the world,” said Chu Hung-lam, a pro­fes­sor and direc­tor of the Con­fu­cius In­sti­tute of Hong Kong.

“The lan­guage it­self is a fac­tor; it is beau­ti­ful and rich and is not dif­fi­cult to mas­ter.

“But it will take at least half a cen­tury or so to reach the stage of be­ing spo­ken and writ­ten by most of the high school and col­lege stu­dents in the world.”

This is all part of a slow de­cline in English as a na­tive lan­guage. In the mid-20th cen­tury, al­most 10 per­cent

Chu Hung-lam, direc­tor of the Con­fu­cius In­sti­tute of Hong Kong.

of the world spoke English as their first lan­guage due to the legacy of Bri­tish colo­nial­ism and Amer­i­can con­sumerism, ac­cord­ing to English lin­guist David Grad­dol in his 2000 pa­per, The De­cline of the Na­tive Speaker.

By 2050, how­ever, the num­ber of na­tive English speak­ers is likely to drop to less than 5 per­cent, while non-na­tive English speak­ers would make up half of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to Grad­dol.

Some lin­guists see two pos­si­ble fu­tures for Man­darin. One is that Chi­nese will be­come the com­mon lan­guage of Asia in the 21st cen­tury, as busi­ness and com­mu­ni­ca­tion grow.

An­other pos­si­bil­ity, ac­cord­ing to lin­guists like Andy Kirk­patrick, a pro­fes­sor at Grif­fith Univer­sity in Aus­tralia, is that with English al­ready the work­ing lan­guage of the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions, non-na­tive forms will evolve. Though these new ver­sions of English might bor­row Chi­nese words for con­ve­nience, as seen in Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia, it would be an amal­gam, not a true Man­darin lin­gua franca.

But if Man­darin is to stake that claim, it has its work cut out. With four tones or pitches, each of which must be per­fected to con­vey a spo­ken syl­la­ble’s mean­ing, and a writ­ten sys­tem that re­lies on thou­sands of char­ac­ters ( hanzi), it is of­ten re­garded as one of the most dif­fi­cult lan­guages to learn.

Chu dis­agreed. “The Chi­nese lan­guage is not dif­fi­cult to learn or mas­ter, no more dif­fi­cult than English,” he said. “But, the Chi­nese char­ac­ters are a real chal­lenge to the learner, (whether he or she is) Chi­nese or not.”

Still, the pit­falls are not lost on the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment. For decades it has been pro­mot­ing Man­darin in a na­tion with thou­sands of di­alects and nu­mer­ous mi­nor­ity lan­guages.

In 2014, the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion re­ported that about 30 per­cent of China’s 1.3 bil­lion pop­u­la­tion could not speak Man­darin. Of the other 70 per­cent, it said only 10 per­cent could com­mu­ni­cate in the lan­guage ar­tic­u­lately.

If one coun­try has rec­og­nized the need to turn to Asia’s most wide­spread lan­guage, it is Aus­tralia.

Since 2012, Aus­tralia’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem has been push­ing for what it calls the Asian Cen­tury. Ac­cord­ing to the gov­ern­ment re­port that launched the project, only 130 Aus­tralians with a non-Chi­nese back­ground have Man­darin pro­fi­ciency, and half of those are aged 55 and above.

Al­though there are no global fig­ures, anec­do­tal and lo­cal ev­i­dence im­plies that a ma­jor­ity of Chi­nese sec­ond­lan­guage learn­ers are eth­ni­cally Chi­nese.

Ac­cord­ing to Chi­nese Lan­guage Com­pe­tency in Aus­tralia, a re­port re­leased last year by the Aus­tralia-China Re­la­tions In­sti­tute of the Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy Syd­ney, fewer than 400 of the 4,149 stu­dents in Aus­tralia who stud­ied Chi­nese in their fi­nal school ex­ams were of non-Chi­nese eth­nic­ity.

A ma­jor cause of this was be­lieved to be the Chi­nese writ­ing sys­tem. When Aus­tralians leave school, hav­ing learned 500 Chi­nese char­ac­ters, for ex­am­ple, it is only the equiv­a­lent of a grade-school ed­u­ca­tion in China. Stu­dents in China learn up to 6,000 char­ac­ters by the time they grad­u­ate.

Iron­i­cally, learn­ers of the lan­guage in China and abroad rarely start learn­ing char­ac­ters from the tra­di­tional books of teach­ing. New stu­dents in­stead start by us­ing the Latin al­pha­bet to write Chi­nese.

This sys­tem, called pinyin, is un­der­stood by the ma­jor­ity of Chi­nese and it is not un­com­mon to find it used in ca­sual writ­ten com­mu­ni­ca­tion. But it is rarely, if ever, used in for­mal writ­ing.

I am in­clined to think that Chi­nese will even­tu­ally be­come a sec­ond lan­guage in many parts of the world.”

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