How learning Chinese has been made easy
By Wang Ying
Updated: 2007-07-25 07:12

Joshua felt a bit hesitant before deciding to learn Chinese when his school in New Jersey introduced courses in the language two years ago. "I had heard Chinese was quite difficult and decided not to give it a try," says the 17-year-old high school student.

But he changed his mind a few days later after receiving a letter from a girl living in China. The girl from his pen pal group wrote: "The Chinese language is very interesting and hope you can have fun learning it." She had drawn two Chinese characters, asking him to guess which was "cry" and which "laugh".

Curriculum director of Summit Academy Schools in Ohio Katherine Bush tries her hand at Chinese calligraphy in a primary school in Taiyuan, capital of North China's Shanxi Province. Bush was a member of a US education group that visited China recently. She has decided to introduce Chinese language courses in her schools from September.           Wang Ying

The answer was given at the back of the letter, but "I didn't have to see it because I found something that resembled a drop of tear in the character 'cry', and 'laugh' looked like a smiling face," says Joshua. "That was the impetus I needed, and I joined the class."

Today, Joshua requests his family members to speak in Putonghua only during dinner to help him practice the language. "My father does business with China and I hope I can visit the country in the near future."

Joshua is just one of the millions of foreigners across the world who is learning Chinese. In fact, more than 40 million foreigners are learning the language and that number is expected to reach about 100 million by 2010, says Xu Lin, director of the office of Chinese Language Council International, or Hanban. The council is the official agency to promote Chinese language and culture around the globe - similar to the UK's British Council and France's Alliance Francaise.

"The demand for Chinese language in the rest of the world has increased rapidly with China's rise as an economic and political power," Xu says. Earlier this month, Hanban invited over 800 elementary and high school heads and education officials from the US, twice more than last year, on a weeklong "Chinese Bridge" tour. The team, which included, teachers and language coordinators, met with Chinese educators and established school-to-school ties with many institutions in China, including some in Beijing.

"The trip was amazing, gorgeous and wonderful, because we got firsthand knowledge about China's culture and language," says Marcy Raymond, principal of Metro High School in Ohio. Raymond plans to bring some of her students to China next summer so that they can interact with their Chinese counterparts and understand the country's culture.

"Our school will introduce Chinese language courses from September. Every student in the US has to learn a foreign language, be it Chinese or Spanish," she says. Spanish has been the most widely taught foreign language in US schools for decades. About 70 percent students there opt for Spanish, 20 percent for French, 6 percent for German and 3 percent for Latin. Those learning Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic or other languages comprise just 1 percent.

But Chinese is one of six official languages of the UN and the most widely spoken across the globe. But it's still not common to hear people speak Putonghua outside China. And though more than 200 million Chinese schoolchildren are learning English - often starting as early as in the second grade - only about 50,000 US students have Chinese as one of their subjects. Some US states have even designated Chinese a "critical language" because of economic, cultural and security reasons.

Ten years ago, Assistant Professor of Iowa State University Eric Shepherd found that none of the American officials could speak more than a few words in Chinese. Shepherd was an intern with the Ohio state government then, and met with several visiting Chinese delegations. "I thought we needed people who knew how to communicate effectively with Chinese people on their terms," he says.

Shepherd benefited from the Ohio State University's Chinese Flagship Program that focused on role-playing and performance-based intensive training. He got a PhD in Chinese language teaching recently, and now teaches Chinese to high school and university students.

Many still believe Putonghua to be one of the most difficult languages to learn because of its tonal base, writing system and cultural context. But an even greater number have found it easier that they had expected it to be.

"Tonal languages (Putonghua has four tones) are easier for children to learn, so starting at a young age is the best way to learn Chinese," says Richard Alcorn, board chairman of a Chinese language school in Massachusetts.

Some other features like its simple grammar and number system make Chinese easier to learn than some European languages. Even its technical terms tend to be descriptive. For example, huo shan (fire mountain) means volcano, and hai xiao (sea roar) means tsunami.

"First learners can start from spoken Putonghua before learning to write," suggests Alcorn. "To grasp the real life language, listen to the Chinese spoken on television and radio every day and interact regularly with Chinese people."

Promoting the Chinese language, however, was quite difficult initially because a few decades ago the rest of the world knew little about China, says Lucy Lee, president of Chinese Language Association of Secondary-Elementary Schools in the US. "When I started teaching Chinese in the US more than 20 years ago, I was so jealous of Japanese teachers because they got all they wanted. Now, it's their turn, with China becoming more influential."

Lee's non-profit organization has more than 400 member schools, targeting students between 5 and 18. The Chinese language has been part of the US education system for a long time but earlier it was confined to universities, and only special areas such as literature and history were taught.

The language became part of high, junior high, and elementary school curricula only two decades ago. In April 2006, the US College Board and Hanban formed a partnership to build and expand Chinese language programs in US schools. Apart from the Chinese Bridge delegation, the partnership includes other programs such as helping US educators promote Chinese language and culture.

In 2002, about 330 US elementary and high schools had Chinese courses, but by last year there were 650. This year, the US College Board is likely to offer an advanced placement course in Chinese and that means more than 2,000 high schools will need Chinese teachers in the near future.

The demand to learn Chinese is not restricted to the US. People in other countries too are eager to do so. "If you want to find a better job you should learn Chinese," says Julian Lo, a tour guide in Indonesia. "Look around, everything is made-in-China. China is a big market and knowing Chinese is necessary for a qualified person."

The Republic of Korea (ROK) sent a 200-member education group to Chinese schools last month to carry back the experience of learning the language to their classrooms.

Another delegation comprising 110 principals and educators from the UK visited China in May.

Under the Framework Agreement on Educational Cooperation, the two sides held the first China-UK Education Summit in Beijing in February to ensure that all primary and secondary schools in the UK introduced Chinese language courses in the next three years. More than 600 primary and secondary schools in the UK already have such courses.

If this trend continues, the number of foreigners learning Putonghua could very well overtake the number of Chinese learning English in the not so distant future.

(China Daily 07/25/2007 page12)