Josh Horwitz wrote in Tech in Asia: “Learning Chinese is not for the faint of heart. Not only does the non-native Mandarin speaker have to master the language’s infamous tones, he or she will must memorize hundreds of thousands of (practically speaking) non-phonetic characters, get acquainted with a wide range of accents, and grapple with a deceptively simple grammar system. [Source: Josh Horwitz, Tech in Asia, June 25, 2014 -]
“At the same time, even the most gifted linguist will admit that one of the biggest challenges posed by Mandarin isn’t the mechanics of the actual language, but the grunt work required to learn it well. Looking up characters in a paper-bound Chinese dictionary is a multi-step process that can take tens of minutes if you’re not careful. Also, relying on a single Chinese-English dictionary for reference is a surefire way to commit language suicide. For such a long-lasting, quickly-evolving language, you’ll need at least three dictionaries handy in order to get a rough idea of what a specific character, word, or phrase means – and even then you’ll usually have to apply some brainpower to figure out how it’s used properly.” -
On whether the web and mobile technology has made learnin Chinese easier, Mike Love, the creator of Pleco told Tech in Asia: “It’s gotten easier because you can spend less time on grunt work. It’s much easier to find language learning materials, and it’s much easier to find language learning buddies. Of course, you can’t change much about human memory. For all the creative tools we try to engineer, learning Chinese is still hard work and you have to memorize a lot. No one’s really come up with a better way to learn grammar as far as i know, or make your tone pronunciation better. The only way to learn some of that stuff is to spend a lot of time around native speakers. So an awful lot of the problems are as hard as they ever were – the only thing is that we’ve gotten rid of some annoyances.” [Source: Josh Horwitz, Tech in Asia, June 25, 2014 -]
Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Language.org chineselanguage.org ; Learning Chinese Chinatown Connection ; Omniglot omniglot.com ; learnchinesepod.com ; Pleco Chinese dictionairies pleco.com ; Haiwang Yuan homepage people.wku.edu Romanisation ay Pinyin Info: pinyin.info Chinese Pod chinesepod.com; etymological dictionary zhongwen.com character etymologies hanziyuan.net ; Translation Service chinesetranslationpro.com ; Chinese Language sites: sites.uni.edu/becker ; Rosetta Stone series rosettastone.com ; Clavisinica clavisinica.com ; China Sprout chinasprout.com; Sound and Pronunciation of Chinese Chinatown Connection Chinatown Connection
See Separate Articles: LANGUAGES IN CHINA: DIVERSITY, TONES AND HISTORY factsanddetails.com ; MANDARIN (PUTONGHUA) factsanddetails.com ; CHINESE DIALECTS AND LANGUAGES factsanddetails.com ; PUSHING MANDARIN AND FIGHTING TO KEEP OTHER CHINESE DIALECTS AND LANGUAGES ALIVE factsanddetails.com ; WRITTEN CHINESE factsanddetails.com ; CHINESE SAYINGS, PROVERBS, PUNS AND SLOGANS factsanddetails.com ;
Difficulty Learning Chinese
Peter Hessler wrote in River Town (2001): "Mandarin Chinese has a reputation for being a difﬁcult language—some experts say it takes four times as long to learn as Spanish or French." Hundreds of millions of people in China and outside it are learning Chinese but this can be a difficult task without a phonetic system to guide pronunciation, which Chinese lacks. David Moser, the author of “A Billion Voices,” a book about the creation of modern Chinese, told the New York Times: “For languages that use alphabets, reading, writing and speaking form a ‘virtuous circle,’ making up one composite skill. In Chinese, the circle is broken and none reinforce the other. In English, the spelling of the word ‘dragon’ conveys the sound of the word, and the sound of the word is enough for the learner to quickly remember how to write it. In Chinese, the traditional character for ‘dragon,’, sits silent and imposing on the page and can only be remembered through countless hours of repetitive practice. “To make it easier to learn thousands of characters that do not correspond to the sound of words and must be memorized, a Romanization system called Pinyin was introduced. But the reformers’ most ambitious plan — abolishing the characters altogether — was never carried out. Moser, who is the academic director at CET, a Chinese language program in Beijing, has a Ph.D. in psycholinguistics and Chinese, and has lived in China for more than 30 years. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Sinosphere, New York Times, May 27, 2016]
Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: “The Chinese language is difficult, different, downright alien from the perspective of English speakers. Chinese is its own linguistic group, with no underlying connection to English. Unlike English, it is also a language that (due to historical and geographic separation as well as to local pride) has borrowed remarkably few words from other languages. Learners therefore have few cognates (familiar-sounding words) to help along the way. [Source:“CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
“True fluency, especially in written Chinese, is rare among people not raised to it. Many have observed that one measure of a language’s difficulty is how many non-native speakers have become great poets in that language. In Chinese, the answer is: none. There have been great poets in Chinese who grew up speaking Japanese or Korean, but (as we’ll see) those languages in written form share many Chinese characters.
“But don’t despair: unlike alphabetic languages like English, Chinese has a tremendous split between its written and spoken forms, and there is no need whatsoever to learn the written forms to be able to speak. Many expatriates in China, including many who have lived in China for years or even decades, who are successful in business, who have many Chinese friends, who in short function extremely well in Chinese society, are in fact functionally illiterate in written Chinese.”
Learning Written Chinese
Because written Chinese is so inflexible there is a large gap in China between the way people write and they way they speak. Written Chinese can not accommodate different Chinese dialects and languages. The result is that no matter what dialect people speak they have to write in Mandarin, which is essentially writing in a second language. A given word in written Chinese can sound completely different in different dialects and be unintelligible unless the person speaks the dialect of which the word is spoken.
Chinese spend much of their childhood memorizing and writing characters. By the time a student is 15 he or she has spent four or five hours a day over nine years learning to write a minimum of 3,000 characters. Moderate literacy requires memorizing a minimum of about 1,200 characters. Television programs are usually broadcast in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles so that people who speak other dialects can understand what is being said. Traditional Chinese is thought to have around 50,000 characters.
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “To communicate in written Chinese, thousands of Chinese characters must be memorized. Since the establishment of the PRC in 1949, reform of the written language has been a major priority. A simplified system of writing, reducing the number of strokes per character, has been adopted, and the language restructured so that anyone familiar with the basic 2,000 — 3,000 characters is functionally literate (defined as being able to read a newspaper). [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
As a child growing up in France, Frenchman Thomas Sauvin told the Los Angeles Times he was vexed by dyslexia. When he was 13, a woman came into his class asking if anyone wanted to study Chinese and explained how the characters were composed. "She said, 'It's fun, look, if you want to say "tree," you have to make a picture of a tree,'" he remembered. "I was like, that's going to solve all my problems. And it's true — dyslexia doesn't bother me in Chinese. I don't miswrite characters." [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, July 13, 2013]
Difficulty Learning Written Chinese
Mandy Zu wrote in the South China Morning Post: “Chinese has one of the most complicated systems of writing in the world, and requires knowledge of several thousand characters for an adequate level of literacy. The pictorial forms are notoriously difficult to learn, requiring years of repeated handwriting. In the 1950s, the mainland began simplifying many commonly used characters to help improve literacy, although the traditional forms remain in use Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. At about the same time, the phonetic pinyin system of romanised Putonghua was introduced. [Source: Mandy Zu, South China Morning Post, August 20, 2013]
Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: Most Western businesspeople "will learn only a few Chinese characters. The written language is simply too complex and difficult to learn much of as a part-time or occasional endeavour, even in its simplified modern form. Classical Chinese, originally written without punctuation, is even more difficult. Most expats learn just a few ‘survival characters’. These will likely include and (‘male’ and ‘female’, needed to distinguish between restroom doors), the characters on the street signs or a few other landmarks near the expat’s apartment, and perhaps the names of a few basic foods. [Source:“CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
Geoffrey Pullum wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “A character can have as many as perhaps 62 strokes. There is controversy about whether there are 62 in the character pronounced biang. Some claiming there are only 56 or 57. I have tried to count many times, and never settled on a definite answer. The brilliant sinologist Victor Mair at the University of Pennsylvania, whose many hundreds of Language Log posts on Chinese are archived here, seems to think 56 is right. He reports that the character is being used as a punishment by at least one cruel teacher, who makes misbehaving students write it out repeatedly. But it’s the writing system as a whole that’s the worst punishment. [Source: Geoffrey Pullum, Chronicle of Higher Education, January 20, 2016. Pullum is a linguist at the University of Edinburgh]
“The size of the Chinese character inventory isn’t really clear, even to an order of magnitude. The question may be ill-defined. One dictionary, the the Zhonghua Zihai, lists 85,568 characters (though many are obsolete); most authorities agree on the existence of more than 50,000; dictionaries often trim the list down to no more than 20,000; modern font designers reckon the basis of the system can be covered by about 13,000 distinct glyphs (you can sometimes combine a pair of glyphs to make a more complex character); highly educated Chinese manage to master around 8,000 (plus or minus a thousand or so); and knowing as few as 3,000 is said to be enough to read a reasonable amount of a daily newspaper.
Moser told the New York Times: “You have to feel sorry for Chinese school kids,” said Mr. Moser, who likened learning Chinese to a “cognitive traffic jam.” “In the first years of their basic education, they must study and master two script systems, one foreign, the other familiar but devilishly hard to write and unreasonably time-consuming to memorize.” On kids outside China learning Chinese, Moser said: ““Parents don’t like to hear this, but kids aren’t stupid and they vote with their time and interest and say, you know, I’m going to skip the difficult Chinese and go with the fun English stuff. As long as I can remember, parents have been tearing their hair out: ‘How can I get my kids to read Chinese books?’ The issue is the characters, and people don’t want to admit that, but it’s true. It’s a serious impediment. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Sinosphere, New York Times, May 27, 2016]
Pleco, the Chinese Learning App and Dictionary
Pleco is regarded as the best and most convenient web and app resources used in studying Chinese. Josh Horwitz wrote in Tech in Asia: “Those who know and use Pleco understand how crucial it is to one’s language learning regimen. It’s one of those rare brand names (if you can call it a brand) that will elicit sheer glee from its users upon the very mention of its name. A Swiss Army knife app featuring 25 dictionaries, almost anyone that’s used it can recall a moment when Pleco “saved their life.” [Source: Josh Horwitz, Tech in Asia, June 25, 2014 -]
“While the app has won legions of fans, few are aware just how revolutionary it was and continues to be. Pleco was first launched as an app for Palm in 2001 – before the big boom in Chinese language learning and the world’s mass adoption of mobile handsets. It pioneered the notion of a Chinese dictionary as a powerful, always-on tool for a wide range of learners, and was the first cross-platform Chinese dictionary to merge handwriting input with character searches across multiple dictionaries. Want to know what means but don’t know how to pronounce the characters? Just trace them in the input field and you’ll find the word next to “panda,” its definition, alongside “xiongmao,” its romanized phonetic pronunciation. -
“Now the app features optical character recognition (“hover-to-translate”), mixed character-pinyin search (trust us, that’s a big deal), voice input, flashcards, and many other bells and whistles that make learning Chinese that much easier for hardcore students. When you consider that for centuries, the only way to look up the word for “panda” was to count the number of strokes for the radical component of the character, consult a series of charts, and then hope that the suggested definition remotely made sense, the convenience of Pleco marks a major turning point in the history of Chinese language learning. -
The Guy That Created Pleco
Josh Horwitz wrote in Tech in Asia: ““More than ten years after it first appeared on Palm, Pleco remains a mostly one-man operation. For 32-year-old Mike Love, a programmer based in New York, Pleco is a full-time hobby that doubles as a business. While many of the apps that dominate our smartphones were created by Silicon Valley dreamers with pipe-dream ambitions and half-baked business plans, Love has added tremendous value to language learners around the world simply by building a better dictionary. Think of him as the pastor overseeing the long-awaited wedding between the Chinese language and mobile electronic devices. [Source: Josh Horwitz, Tech in Asia, June 25, 2014 -]
On how many people he employs full time, Love told tech in Asia: “We work mostly with contractors, and we don’t have an office. Pleco has zero statutory employees at the moment. The number of people working full-time is probably three or four.” On whether its a full-time job for him, Love said: “It’s most definitely a full-time job for me. An additional benefit that I get, which I recognized early on as I started Pleco, was I knew that I would be a father someday and I knew that it would be nice to have my own business at that point. I could always be available and set whatever hours I wanted. The work from home thing is really a dream if you’re a parent, especially of young children. So now I work when I don’t have something else I need to do. It’s certainly 40 hours a week most of the time, sometimes 50 or 60 hours a week.” -
On creating a Chinese-language app while living in New York rather than China, Love said: “There probably are a few things I’m missing out on. My knowledge of Chinese slang is probably not as good as it could be, but I’ve got some people doing that for me. I guess I’d say that it’s helpful to be a part of the Chinese language learning community in China, but at the same time, it’s good to have a little distance from it. It helps me look at some of the problems with more of a critical eye. I feel like with software, you get enough usage data from emails – users give you feedback and complaints and compliments. Frankly, we have more customers that are students in the US or outside of China than customers who are from China. The stereotypical user of Pleco is the Westerner who’s living in China studying Chinese.” -
Creation of Pleco
Pleco creator Mike Love told Tech in Asia: “In my senior year of high school I was studying abroad in China in 1999. I saw these neat little portable electronic dictionaries that every Chinese person was using to learn English. I wanted my own version of one of those dictionaries, but for Mandarin. I didn’t have a factory in Shenzhen to churn out my own portable Chinese dictionary, so I needed an already-available device to put it on. At the time, that device was the Palm. [Source: Josh Horwitz, Tech in Asia, June 25, 2014 -]
“My parents gave me a Palm IIIx for Christmas in 1999. I put something together using some off-the-shelf Palm apps – a handwriting app, a Chinese enabler app (since Palm wasn’t Chinese enabled), and CEDICT – a predecessor of CC-CEDICT – which was a simple Chinese dictionary that had about 20,000 entries. I built a prototype using those, and then some of my friends started buying Palm Pilots because they wanted to use it. -
“Around March 2000 I wrote to Oxford University Press, which had a really awesome Chinese dictionary at the time, and asked, ‘Is there any way I can get an electronic copy of your dictionary?” Back then, I wasn’t planning on building a business out of Pleco, I just thought that if I could put Oxford’s Chinese dictionary on my friends’ Palms, it would be a nice thing for them. They said “Sure, we’d love to license you our dictionary!” I had no idea it would be that easy. So we negotiated some terms and then we had an exclusive copyright license to the Oxford Chinese dictionary for Palm Pilot. Pleco was founded two weeks after my 18th birthday in May of that Year. -
After Love put the Oxford dictionary on Palm, you went off to Harvard to get your Bachelor’s in Computer Science. On his Harvard years, Love told tech in Asia: “I kept working on it. I had to, because it was successful. We officially launched in October of 2001, and it was doing okay, making me enough money to keep my social life in good standing. Then That’s Beijing did a piece on us in April of 2002, and our sales doubled that month and basically stayed at that level moving forward. I started making more serious amounts of money and got to thinking, ‘Gee, this could actually be my job after I’m done here.’ My dad was a high school principal, and my mother was a university admissions officer, so I was never going to be allowed to drop out of school, however tempting that might have been! But I was doing well enough that I saw Pleco as an option I could pursue if I didn’t see anything that I liked more. So I kept it going. I graduated, and did not in fact find a job that I liked better than Pleco. I completed a summer internship at Microsoft, but I didn’t really enjoy myself much there. So I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll just work for myself.’” -
“Why didn’t you stick around at Microsoft or work at another large firm? “The stuff that the high-level gurus at those places do is math-y theoretical computer science that I don’t really find much fun, quite frankly. I did reasonably well at it in school, but I never really enjoyed it. I don’t really like spending a lot of time thinking about Big O notation and so forth. And at the lower-rung levels, it wasn’t very interesting either. You could work on a tiny sliver of Windows, and maybe if you try really hard in 20 years you might get to be some sort of development lead. And even then you’d still be managing a little piece of someone else’s ecosystem. Even if you’re working at a big company with career security and free soda, you are really just a tiny little piece of something. I wanted to run the whole thing, even if it was just a small thing.” - “On why he hasn’t branched out into other languages, Love said: The reality is that I just found Chinese much more interesting. I never run out of stuff to do with Chinese, it’s such a rich and incredibly complicated language. So I never really saw the point of expanding horizontally into different languages.” With Chinese, “You’ve got a language where really, really experienced Chinese learners still can’t read all of it. So characters present all of these problems – how do you teach them correctly? What are some better ways of indexing them? Moreover, the fact that Chinese learners fundamentally can’t read the characters that they need to look up in a dictionary means that there are problems you have to solve regarding input methods – how do you search a character that you don’t know? With Chinese, unlike other languages, there’s an ongoing need to work with the actual text. In Spanish, if you don’t know a word that’s in a book you’re reading, you can type that word into a dictionary very efficiently. With Chinese, you’ll have to go through some hoops to look up that word. It’s the only language where you’ll never be able to read all of it – there will always be a gap between what you can read and your knowledge of vocabulary. -
Marketing Pleco and Adapting it to Smartphones
Pleco creator Mike Love told Tech in Asia: “Our first killer feature for v1.0 was handwriting input, which we launched just as touchscreens were coming out. Most people didn’t even know that touchscreens were a thing at that point. I had seen a few on some of the high-end electronic dictionaries that were popular in Japan and Korea, and I knew it was something we had to have. I saw it as the first step in making something significantly better than a paper dictionary. [Source: Josh Horwitz, Tech in Asia, June 25, 2014 -]
“Building the handwriting input was a case of good fortune. Motorola had a really good Chinese handwriting engine, so I spoke to them about licensing it. Most copyright licenses involve some sort of royalty advance, or at least a commitment to buy X number of units minimum over the term of the contract. Motorola initially offered us a license with a much larger commitment than we could afford, so we countered with double their per-unit price but no up-front commitment. Surprisingly, they agreed to that. I don’t think anyone was expecting anything out of Palm Pilots at that time, so they were willing to take whatever money they could get. -
“Back then, it seemed to me that Motorola and Oxford were very generous about licensing terms – more willing to accommodate a bootstrapped startup of very limited financial means than copyright licensors tend to be with mobile app developers now. Both Motorola’s and Oxford’s licensing regimens back then were mainly tailored towards OEMs. Both were working with companies that made the sorts of standalone electronic dictionaries Pleco was inspired by. I don’t think they expected downloadable third-party software to make much money. But for that same reason, they also didn’t see it as a threat to their OEM customers. They could license to us and make a little extra money without giving up any of the money they were getting from OEMs. -
“The mobile web wasn’t even a consideration in the pre-iPhone days – people might have had access to it, but it was always too slow or too expensive to make OTA distribution feasible. Pre-iPhone devices also generally didn’t ship with Chinese fonts so web-based competitors weren’t really a concern either. -
“Post-iPhone, it’s certainly been a boon for distribution – an awful lot of our business comes from word-of-mouth, so the fact that somebody can hear about Pleco, pull up the App Store and download it instantly is tremendously useful. The promise of that was a big part of what motivated us to adopt the free-with-in-app-purchases business model so early – Apple initially restricted in-app-purchases to paid apps, and our plan at that point had been to offer a ‘basic’ version of Pleco for US$10 or US$20 and sell various additional dictionaries as in-app purchases. But in mid-October of 2009 Apple opened in-app purchases to free apps, and we quickly restructured everything around that so that when our app launched in mid-December, we were able to make the initial download free. -
“And of course, in-app purchases themselves have also been a huge boost – for our Palm and Windows Mobile apps you not only had to visit a website to buy our software, but once you’d bought it, you had to copy a “keyfile” from your computer to your phone in order to activate your purchase. So the first part of that cost us a lot of sales and the second half of that left a lot of our users frustrated spending hours trying to get their newly purchased software working.” -
On the money he makes, Love said: “I try not to discuss numbers in too much detail, but I think the profits were in the six-figure range by 2005-2006. So I was certainly making something competitive with a senior developer salary just on Palm and Windows Mobile. It’s not like I could have gotten a job that paid me more. Pleco was niche, yes, but we had something that was unique enough that people were basically going out and buying Palm devices just for Pleco.
Studying Chinese Outside China
Chinese is the third most widely spoken language in the United States after English and Spanish, with nearly 2.9 million speakers in 2011. As of 2005, about 50,000 students were learning Mandarin in the United States while 110 million Chinese were studying English.California has been in the forefront, both geographically and historically, ever since huge numbers of Chinese workers helped build the US railroad system. San Francisco and LA have the biggest Chinese communities after New York.
The U.S. Congress considered a proposal to allocate $1.3 billion for the teaching of Chinese language and culture in American public schools. A survey by AP found that 2,400 U.S. high schools said they would consider teaching Mandarin but only 240 were interested in teaching Italian and 175 were interested in teaching Japanese.
In recent years more of an effort has been made to teach Chinese in American schools. As of 2006, only about 24,000 students in grades seven through 12 studied the language. Some schools taught Cantonese but most offered Mandarin. In the past it was mostly Asian parents who wanted their kids to study Chinese but these days it is often non-Asian parents who want their children to study it and have an edge in the global economy.
Learning Mandarin in the United States is quite fashionable. Parents are hiring Mandarin-speaking nannies and signing up their kids for total immersion classes. Schools can not meet the demand for Mandarin teacher. Some classes have long waiting lists and a lottery decides who gets in. Celebrity investor Jim Rogers famously moved to Singapore so his kids would grow up learning Mandarin Chinese there.
Studying Chinese has also become very fashionable in Asia, particularly in South Korea and Southeast Asia, places whose future is tied most closely to China. These areas have traditionally viewed China with some suspicion but now they realize it is time to get on the bus or be left behind. Schools are in Mexico are starting to teach Mandarin.
Studying Chinese in Thailand
These days more and Thai children are studying Chinese. Studying Chinese has also become very fashionable elsewhere in Asia, particularly in South Korea and Malaysia, places whose future is tied most closely to China. These areas have traditionally viewed China with some suspicion but now they realize it is time to get on the bus or be left behind.
Michael Vatikiotis wrote in the International Herald Tribune: InThailand in the 1980s “if you wanted to learn Chinese in Thailand, there were very few legal options available. Access to education in the mother tongue was restricted even for Thailand's sizable Chinese community because of a fear of Communist influence. A Thai-Chinese friend of mine remembers learning Chinese in secret under the dining room table. You could, if you liked, attend a sizable Chinese language school run by the 93rd regiment of the Kuomintang who retreated from China after 1949 and settled in the remote hills of Northern Thailand. At one time in the 1980s, the Mae Salong Chinese school was the only educational institution legally offering a secondary school Chinese curriculum in the entire country. [Source: Michael Vatikiotis, International Herald Tribune, January 19, 2006]
The end of the Cold War and China's rise has changed all this. Today you can wander along the crowded streets of Chiang Mai or Bangkok and find Chinese language schools as easily as internet cafes - tiny classrooms tucked away in a row of shop houses. "Chiang Mai Language School" just off Chiang Mai's Changklarn Road is typical. There I met a teacher, Jiang Jiew Moe, who hails from Taiwan. "The school just gets bigger every year," he said. Last year there were 100 students. This year 150 have enrolled. Last year 19 of Jiang's students passed the standard proficiency set by an examination board in China. "My students are mostly young, in their 20's. They come because parents think of their future and want them to learn the language."
Thailand is taking the Chinese language seriously, so seriously that the government has asked China to send teachers. In of January 2006, China's deputy education minister...was in Bangkok to sign an agreement to help train 1,000 Mandarin language teachers every year for Thailand. China will also offer 100 scholarships for Thai students to study in China, and send 500 young volunteers to teach Chinese in Thailand. Meanwhile, the Thai Education Ministry aims to promote the Chinese language alongside compulsory English and hopes that one third of high school students will be proficient in Chinese within five years.
Lending impetus to this move are China's other efforts to promote Chinese language education overseas. Beijing recently established the Confucius Institute, modelled on the British Council and German Goethe Institute, as a nonprofit outfit with the stated mission of "promoting Chinese language and culture and supporting local Chinese teaching."...China's national office for teaching Chinese as a foreign language, which runs the Confucius Institutes, will provide textbooks for schools in Southeast Asia with the catchy title "Happy Chinese."
All of this is a sign of expanding Chinese soft power. But what are the implications of the spread of Chinese language and culture? It's a more important question in a region like Southeast Asia where as many as half the people living in urban areas like Bangkok are of Chinese descent. Many of the young students who attend Jiang's class in the Chiang Mai school have Chinese roots — their fathers and grandfathers came from China. Learning Chinese has deeper implications than the earlier fad in the 1980s of learning Japanese. For one thing, it's hard to become a Japanese citizen. I asked my friends in Chiang Mai, Angsana and Anirut Thongchai, both of whom are of Chinese descent, whether they were pushing their children to learn Chinese. Their elder daughter Prang is into Japanese comics in a big way. Neither she nor her brother has learned Chinese. "It would be a good idea, but we're not pushing them," said Angsana, a teacher at Chiang Mai University.
There's certainly a reason in business circles to learn Chinese; Thailand has already signed a bilateral free-trade agreement with China and more two million Chinese tourists visit Thailand each year, according to the Ministry of Tourism. Jiang cites another and perhaps less obvious incentive for learning Chinese. "It is well known that there are more men than women in Chinese society. We can expect a lot of Chinese men to come looking for brides in Thailand," he predicts in a matter of fact way. "Already the majority of my students are women. They are preparing themselves for Chinese suitors."
China Helps Teach Chinese in the United States
In 2013, Reuters reported: “Mandarin teaching has expanded nationwide over the last decade, in contrast to other foreign languages which have steadily decreased, according to data compiled by the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL). “Mandarin is really taking off … Chinese was one of the few languages that increased, most other language offerings decreased, including French, German, and Japanese,” Nancy Rhodes of the Washington DC-based CAL told AFP. [Source: Reuters March 20, 2013 \~]
“Beijing’s education ministry is also helping, by sending native-speaker teachers effectively for free to work in US schools. “Schools are of course experiencing huge budget cuts, so the offer of free or low cost native-speaker teachers from China to teach language classes really looks good,” said Rhodes.” A principal at a school utilizing the Chinese government teacher said “the availability of free Chinese teachers was crucial to” the school’s “decision to offer the Mandarin language immersion program. “I am Chinese, born and raised in Taiwan. But that has nothing to do with why I’m here doing this program. The Chinese volunteer teachers were what we were able to get. Had we been able to get free French teachers, or free Spanish teachers, we’d be teaching those,” the principal said.
“Traditionally families with one or both parents from Chinese backgrounds have put children into Mandarin-language schools to bolster their cultural “heritage,” or ability to communicate with grandparents back home. But increasingly parents cite economic and career-prospect reasons for having their offspring able to speak Chinese. “I wanted them to have the opportunity to be able to leave the US if they wished to go and seek employment somewhere else,” said Julie Wang, an Australian who came to the United States when she was 25. “I did that myself … I came out here. I think it’s a great opportunity for them to experience different cultures, different ways of life, not just the one that they grew up in,” she added. \~\
U.S. Schools Embrace ‘Immersion’ Chinese Lessons
In 2013, Reuters reported: “Susan Wang couldn’t speak English when she arrived in California from Taiwan, aged 16. Now 49, she heads a school offering US children a similar experience, plunging them into a Chinese world. And her establishment is part of a rapid expansion of “immersion” Mandarin language programs in the United States, helped notably by Beijing providing low-cost native-speaker teachers to cash-strapped US schools. Pupils as young as five at her Broadway Elementary School in Venice, west of Los Angeles, take classes entirely in Chinese, in a project so successful that it is having to move to a new campus. “The single most exciting thing has to be watching the kids learn, and how they learn, and how fast they pick up another language, it’s just amazing,” she told AFP, in a pause from her busy day at the local school. “I didn’t speak English when I came, so when it comes to dual language and language learning … it’s something close to my heart,” she added. [Source: Reuters March 20, 2013 \~]
“Chinese immersion programs are not new in American schools. But China’s rapidly expanding world role has fueled growing demand for Mandarin language skills, mirroring Washington’s diplomatic pivot across the Pacific. In the classroom at Broadway, the linguistic immersion is total. The walls are plastered with pictures and signs entirely in Chinese, the text books are in Mandarin, and the teacher will not accept a word of English.And while some children have a Chinese parent or grandparents, the eager faces around the room are from all backgrounds, from African American and white Caucasian to Latino youngsters. \~\
“Many don’t speak a word of Mandarin when they arrive. “At the beginning it is difficult,” said kindergarten teacher Carol Chan, adding at first she has to use a lot of gestures, visual aids — and a lot of games. “I use a lot of pictures and … a lot of music. It is difficult because they don’t understand a word I’m saying. But through physical language and gestures, they really catch on. And they’re having fun with me too!” First-grader Grace Ehlers says it was tough at first, but now she is equally confident in both languages. “It’s the same, or maybe a little bit easier in Chinese because my dad speaks many languages and sometimes he teaches me a little bit of it,” she said, when asked to compare classes in English and Mandarin. \~\
“According to CAL, there were 74 Mandarin language immersion programs in the United States in 2008, the last time the data was updated. “I do know that there are more programs not yet listed,” said Rhodes. Overall Spanish has the most immersion programs, with 45 percent of the total, followed by French on 22 percent, Mandarin on 13 percent followed by Hawaiian Japanese and German. “In the past Chinese has traditionally been taught more on the West Coast and in major cities, but we’re seeing more Chinese programs cropping up all over the country now,” she said. “Even smaller districts that we work with … that are starting up elementary school language programs are considering switching between Spanish and Chinese,” she said, adding that the expansion will likely continue. “I don’t see the trend slowing anytime soon,” said Rhodes.
Making Mandarin Mandatory — in U.S. Kindergartens
Mark McDonald wrote in the New York Times, “Bibb County sits smack-dab in the center of Georgia, and 150 years ago it was at the very center of the Confederacy. Its foundries supplied weapons and ammunition to the rebel army, and no county supplied a larger percentage of its men to the cause. Toward the end of the Civil War, the only local men not carrying a musket for the South were elderly, blind or disabled. Times are still tough in Bibb County. Some 20 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, and its public schools are among the lowest performing in the state. About half the kids don’t graduate from high school. [Source: Mark McDonald, New York Times, September 10, 2012]
But the county has just embarked on a bold plan to have all its children fully bilingual — in English and Mandarin — by the time they graduate from high school. In recent weeks, children from pre-kindergarten through third grade began mandatory Mandarin classes, part of a curriculum that in three years will include middle school and high school students. ‘students who are in elementary school today, by 2050 they’ll be at the pinnacle of their career,” the school superintendent Romain Dallemand said in an interview that aired Saturday on NPR. “They will live in a world where China and India will have 50 percent of the world GDP. They will live in a world where, if they cannot function successfully in the Asian culture, they will pay a heavy price.”
The new curriculum has had some pushback, to say the least, and the word communism has often been raised. Jane Drennan, a deputy superintendent, told a TV station in Macon, the county seat, that she and other school officials had heard from many parents who said, “I don’t want my kid learning Chinese.” “I understand there may be some fears involved in moving a different culture into our community,” Ms. Drennan said. “People have concerns we won’t be teaching English as much, which is not true. This is an addition to our curriculum.”
Ms. Drennan said learning another language, whether it’s Chinese or French, “enhances your learning in everything else.” “Bibb County is not known for producing the highest-achieving graduates,” Dina McDonald, a Macon resident and the mother of a ninth-grader, told NPR. “You’ll see that many of them can’t even speak basic English.” “Do you want to teach them how to say, “Do you want fries with that?” in Mandarin.”
A number of parents have asked why Spanish is not the default second language, especially with the increasing number of Hispanic residents in the county. “My wife is a Latina, and so I fully understand,” said Mr. Dallemand, who was born in Haiti, adding a saying from Arthur C. Clarke: “It is important for communities to educate our children for their future, not our past.”
The new Mandarin teachers, about 25 in all, are being supplied by The Confucius Institute at Kennesaw State University, north of Atlanta. Hailing from mainland China, the teachers live in the local Bibb County communities, teach and work full-time at the schools and cost the district $16,000 each. For the past three weeks, Jie Jiang has been teaching second-graders at Burdell-Hunt Elementary School in Macon. She told the Macon Telegraph that the “kids are really nice and they learn fast.”
And the newspaper’s story described this classroom scene: “During Wednesday’s class, students practiced saying “good morning,” “good afternoon” and “good evening” aloud as Jiang held flashcards depicting different times of day. “Now let’s see if you can write some Chinese,” Jiang said after the flashcard exercise. “This is a little difficult, but I think you can do it.” On the board, Jiang wrote the characters for “good evening,” pronounced “wan shang hao.” Second-grader Immanuel Hawkins volunteered for the task, writing his characters underneath Jiang’s and beaming when she congratulated him in Mandarin.”
Confucius Institutes and Controlling Chinese Languages
The Chinese government is making an effort to spread their language around the globe. It is currently creating a network of cultural centers, called Confucius Institutes, that are similar to British Councils or Goethe Institutes and whose aim is to help teach the Chinese language and spread Chinese culture. As of June 2011, there were 322 Confucius Institutes on foreign university campuses and 369 Confucius Classrooms in elementary and high schools. [Source: Forbes July 3, 2011]
Michael Churchman of Australia National University wrote in China Heritage Quarterly: “The logic of the foundation of Confucius Institutes is that encouraging non-Chinese to understand more about China and Chinese will lead them to develop more positive attitudes towards China itself. Other significant nation-states (France, Britain, Germany and Japan) have been funding similar projects for decades. The difference between the new Confucius Institutes and other state-backed institutions such as the Goethe Institute and the Alliance Française is that Confucius Institutes are founded within pre-existing international educational institutions; consequently there is a widely-held suspicion that these institutes are aimed less at fostering interest in China and Chinese culture itself, and more at ensuring that such interest is guided along lines approved of by the Chinese party-state. Much discussion has already taken place internationally concerning the potential of Confucius Institutes to stifle academic discussion in their home universities, in particular in relation to a long list of topics that the Chinese Communist Party finds unsuitable for discussion, such as the status of Taiwan, Tibet, Falungong, human rights, democratic reform and so on. [Source: Michael Churchman of Australia National University China Heritage Quarterly no. 26 (June 2011):
It is naïve to believe that Confucius Institutes are politically disinterested teachers imparting Chinese culture and language. They exist for the express purpose of letting foreigners understand China on terms acceptable to official China. The regulations by which the Confucius Institutes must abide already make it clear that teaching of knowledge about China will be subject to control, although it is noteworthy that whoever composed those regulations seems to have tried to make them appear as apolitical as possible. There is no explicit rule banning the teaching of well-known sensitive political topics, for instance, but there is the phrase in the Sixth Principle of Section One of the Constitution and Bylaws of the Confucius Institutes — they shall not contravene concerning the laws and regulations of China, which offers endless possibilities for prohibiting the discussion or teaching of any topic that is deemed objectionable. Where the guiding hand of Chinese officialdom is most evident, however, is in the Tenth Principle of the Confucius Institutes Constitution which stipulates: “The Confucius Institutes conduct Chinese language instructions in Mandarin [Standard Chinese/Putonghua], using Standard Chinese Characters.” This is an extension to teaching institutes overseas of Article Twenty of the Language Law of the People’s Republic of China promulgated in 2000 which states: “Putonghua and the standardized Chinese characters shall be taught in classes for foreigners who are learning Chinese.”
This Tenth Principle is the only explicit evidence for the exclusion of certain subjects from the teaching syllabus of Confucius Institutes, but few commentators seem to have paid it much attention. The significance of the regulation, however, is clear: not only is it against the rules to teach any Chinese language other than Putonghua within a Confucius Institute, it is also forbidden to teach students the non-simplified characters still widely used in Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong and many other Chinese communities beyond the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party. The reason why the most obvious interdiction covering subject matter in the Confucius Institutes has been so little discussed probably stems from the fact that although outsiders are always on the lookout for evidence that the Chinese party-state is trying to exercise control over prominent political issues, linguistic matters are generally regarded as being relatively insignificant.
It is undeniable that learning Standard Chinese, or Mandarin, along with simplified characters is of great benefit for beginning students of Chinese, but the exclusion of other ways of speaking and writing Chinese should immediately raise suspicions. Perhaps the compilers of the regulations assumed that people would not question the status of Standard Chinese and simplified characters as the undisputed legitimate forms of Chinese speech and writing, and that such regulation would not be taken as a political move? If it really were the case that literacy in traditional characters and proficiency in Chinese languages other than Standard Chinese were completely irrelevant to the study of Chinese, there would be no demand for them, and indeed no need to legislate specifically against teaching them to non-Chinese or foreign-born “heritage students.”
Image Sources: Maps, Dartmouth College; Language charts, wikipedia
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2021