The Rise and Rise of Mandarin Chinese

China’s growing importance in the world has convinced millions to start learning Mandarin, but how many will end up able to speak one of the world’s most difficult languages?

Earlier this year, a Chinese teacher in Shanghai said he was leaving China.

For the next two years, he plans to live with his wife, who is also a teacher, in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. They will live and work at the local Confucius Institute and help spread Mandarin into central Asia.

It may seem an odd choice to swap the bright lights of China’s most advanced city for an unstable and relatively poor former Soviet state, but the Confucius Institutes are a key part of Chinese government policy, and the Chinese government evidently made it worth their while to go.

Since 2005, China has rolled out more than 300 Confucius Institutes in 94 countries in order to help the rest of the world learn a language that is increasingly important but devilishly challenging.

The Chinese government claims that 230,000 people have enrolled so far and they cannot meet the demand. China is sending 5,000 teachers abroad each year and now wants 1,000 institutes to be open by the end of the decade.

“It is obvious why Chinese is becoming more popular,” said Li Quan, a professor of Chinese at Renmin university in Beijing. “We are now a major economy. The West has started to realise that if you want to get to know China and understand how the country works, it is important to learn Mandarin. And the world now understands that China is going to be a force for a long time, so learning the language is essential”.

In the UK, there are Confucius Institutes at universities in Manchester, Cardiff, Lampeter, Nottingham, Sheffield, Edinburgh and London, usually on campus. Some eyebrows have been raised at this extension of the Chinese government into the lives of British students, but there is also a general agreement so far that the UK would have minimal resources to teach Mandarin without them.

Indeed, only 1,500 students took Chinese or Mandarin at undergraduate or postgraduate level last year, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, making it the least popular major language apart from Japanese.

In response, the government has laid out plans to bolster the teaching of Mandarin in schools and the Confederation of British Industry has said that Chinese is one of the most sought-after languages by British businesses. The developing world is going a step further, as Pakistan’s decision to make Mandarin compulsory in schools has shown.

Meanwhile, Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, designated last year as the “Year of Chinese Language” in Russia and even flirted with the idea of learning it himself.

But the challenge of learning Chinese is daunting, especially from outside the country. “It will be hard for Chinese to really become a world language,” admitted Prof Li. “It is important that other countries incorporate it into their primary and secondary schools, but it is pretty unlikely that it will really be a proper world language”.

Not only do foreigners find it difficult to master the four tones of Mandarin, but the alien grammar and the difficulty of rote-learning thousands of words overcome all but the most diligent students.

“The official figures suggest there are 50 million people learning Chinese, but we are not so optimistic. Perhaps that is just the number of people expressing an interest,” said Zheng Wei, an editor at Beijing Language University’s publishing house.

“At the moment, we think roughly one-third of Mandarin students are from Japan and Korea, then the US and Europe and then the developing countries. The big problem is that foreign countries lack resources to teach Chinese, both in books and teachers.” Without anyone to practise with, and without living in Chinese-speaking surroundings, students quickly lose resolve. “It is a real challenge, the environment is important,” said Mr Zheng. “Perhaps what we need is for Chinese communities living overseas and Chinese students studying overseas to take on more teaching jobs at schools.” Indeed, many foreign students eventually arrive at the shameful conclusion that the Chinese are mastering English far more quickly than vice versa. “There is no competition!” said Prof Li. “The passion that Chinese have for learning English is much greater. All of our exams, the university exams and the exams for professional certificates judge you on English skills. So unless the rest of the world implements an identical scheme in its schools, Chinese will never manage to penetrate as deeply.”

Mandarin lessons to become compulsory in Pakistan

Lessons in Mandarin could become compulsory for schoolchildren in parts of Pakistan under ambitious plans to capitalise on the growing influence of Chinese companies.

A pilot project will be launched later this year in the southern province of Sindh as Pakistan looks to further strengthen ties with its giant neighbour.

While Islamabad and Washington continue to eye each other warily – and a planned visit by President Barack Obama has been postponed – 2011 has already been declared the year of “Pak-China Friendship”.

The country’s cricketing authorities have even considered playing Test matches in China while touring sides avoid Pakistan for fear of terrorist attack.

Now, education authorities in Sindh say they plan to make Mandarin compulsory in schools from Class 6 (10- and 11-year-olds).

“Our trade, educational and other relations are growing with China everyday and now it is necessary for our younger generation to have command over their language,” said Pir Mazhar-ul-Haq¸ senior provincial education minister, as he unveiled the policy.

Learning the language may earn pupils scholarships or trips to China, according to officials

The plan has many critics, however, who say the policy is driven by political considerations. They point out that Pakistan has few Chinese language teachers and an already overstretched education system.

Zubeida Mustafa, columnist and author of Tyranny of Language in Education, accused the Sindh government as moving further into “mass confusion”.

“As is our wont, a handful of unqualified policymakers have taken the hasty decision with no planning having gone into it,” she wrote.

Pakistan is not the only country to take up Mandarin or Cantonese as China’s economic growth transforms world trade.

In July, Swedish officials announced that all primary schools would offer classes in Chinese within 10 years.

But in recent months Pakistan has repeatedly talked up its ties with China – worth $8.7bn in trade each year, a figure expected to almost double in the next three years – as its relationship with the US has soured.

Earlier this year, Pakistan opened a nuclear reactor built with Chinese expertise and the country is now believed to be Islamabad’s biggest supplier of military equipment, including warships and fighter jets.

In May, with his country still reeling from the US’s secret raid to kill Osama bin Laden, Yousuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan’s prime minister, thanked China for its uncompromising support.

“We are proud to have China as our best and most trusted friend, and China will always find Pakistan standing beside it at all times,” he said shortly before a visit to Beijing.

Factbox: Mandarin vs English

Around 840 million people worldwide are native Mandarin speakers, while a further 180 million or so speak it as a second language, making it the world’s most widely-spoken tongue.

By comparison, 340 million people are native English speakers, although some 510 million or so people have learned it as a second language.

Mandarin, or Putonghua, is China’s standard language, spoken across the country.

The English word “Mandarin” derives from the Sanskrit “Mantrin” meaning “minister” and originally referred to officials of the Chinese empire. Jesuit missionaries started calling the language “Mandarin” because it was the language that officials spoke.

In 1956, the Communist Party decreed that all education should be conducted in Mandarin and today around 70 per cent of China speaks the language, with a diminishing minority still speaking local dialects such as Cantonese, Shanghainese or Tibetan.

As well as being the official spoken language of China and Taiwan, Mandarin is one of four official languages in Singapore, and is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

The vast majority of Mandarin speakers live in China, although Mandarin is spoken among some of the seven million Chinese who live overseas.

In order to promote the learning of Mandarin overseas, China began opening its network of Confucius Institutes in 2004. As of July 2010, there were 316 Confucius Institutes in 94 countries.

The Chinese Education ministry estimates as many as 50 million people overseas are now learning Mandarin.

Taken from The Telegraph: 20.09.11