More foreigners learning Chinese

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Saturday, September 6, 2008

As well as dissing Korean students, this piece highlights how more foreigners are comign to China to learn Chinese language (and not just those who need to enrol as students to get visas to stay here)

From China Daily:

For many people, studying Chinese is nothing more than a mild flirtation, but for others it is the Holy Grail, their very reason for being in China.

I'd like to say a foreigner's interest in learning Chinese stems from a deep-seated desire to understand China's ancient and mysterious culture but, frankly, the motivation is often more pragmatic. The temptation to cash in on this booming economy is irresistible. Learn the lingo and the world is your oyster.

Call it what you will, more foreigners are learning Chinese than ever before, many of us burying our heads in textbooks and homework for the first time in decades.

As growth industries go, it is a phenomenon. Only 20 years ago, less than 8,000 foreigners studied Chinese in this country. By the turn of the century it was up to 50,000. By 2004 it was 86,000, and the government estimated then that the number would be 120,000 by the time of the Olympics. Talk about an opening-up. This is a deluge.

If that isn't impressive enough, include the rest of the world in the picture. Even 10 years ago, it was estimated nearly 100 million people around the world were studying Chinese and about 100 countries were offering Chinese courses in various educational institutions. One result of this growing demand was a dire shortage of Chinese teachers and urgent requests to this country to send out more.

The burgeoning growth statistics are borne out by Zhao Changzheng, who has taught Mandarin at Peking University for seven years.

"When I came here we only had 300 foreign students learning Chinese," he says. "Now it's around 500-600 and we could have many more if we wanted.

"The university is keen to expand the department to 1,000 new foreign students each semester but we don't have enough room in the classes and dorms. Soon we will have a new building for foreign students and then the number learning Chinese will be as high as 2,000 each semester."

The geographical breakdown has also changed. "Ten years ago, it was just called the Chinese International College for Language Study and we mostly had Japanese and South Koreans," says Zhao. "In the last 4-5 years we've experienced such an surge of interest from the US that Americans are our biggest group, about 40 percent of all foreigners."

The benefit to the university has been more than merely financial. "Years ago, when we didn't have many applications to our department, we had no choice who we took," he continues.

"Many of the students from South Korea weren't that interested and weren't very good students. Now we have a big pool of students to choose from. We are able to select only the best ones and we have noticed their attitude to be getting better and better."

Courses last one semester, though students can apply to stay on longer. At the start of each semester, students are tested on their oral Chinese and put into the 34 classes, each with around 15 students, according to their results. There are also 34 parallel classes in vocabulary, grammar and script.

It may come as a surprise, but studying Chinese characters is a compulsory component of the program. For Zhao, this is essential. "If you don't study the characters you can't really know our language and our culture," he says. "The best students are also taught about Chinese society, culture, economics and law, and we find they are very interested in these extra subjects."

The rewards are mutual. "I am their teacher but also their student too, sometimes. Just as it is a culture shock for students coming here from Europe and America, so it is for us at the university. The students tell me things I never knew and I learn from them all the time, so life is much more interesting."

While Zhao is reluctant to guesstimate how well students can expect to speak after just one semester, he says the sky is the limit.

"We once had a student who spent one year in China - 6 months with us and 6 months in Shanghai - and at the end of the year he spoke Chinese very, very well," he says.

Usually, though, he reckons you'd need to study full-time for 2-3 years before you are likely to speak with any fluency.

If students need to work hard to achieve their dreams, the same is true for 110-year-old Peking University, which is constantly reviewing its course structures to cater to the ever-changing student roll.

"Having so many Americans and Europeans here spreads the word about Peking University around the world," says Zhao.

"This is already the best university in China but we want more. We want to be the best, most famous university in the world. That has been our dream for a long time."

"Bah, humbug!" I thought. Then I surfed the Net and discovered the Times Higher Education Supplement, published in London, rated Peking University the best in Asia in 2006 and the 14th best in the world. Maybe it isn't an impossible dream.

Tips for learning Chinese:

It's easy to be daunted by Mandarin, so heed the words of Summer Xiang and Ben Johnson. They each offer excellent advice for first-time students.

Xiang teaches Mandarin to several of us at China Daily and encourages even full-time workers with little spare time to have a go. "If you don't have much time, don't worry," she says.

"Concentrate on simple sentences and you will still find it very rewarding when you communicate with the locals.

"Learning the language is important because you are living in China. This country has a long history and a different culture - if you can speak the language it will make your life much more interesting."

Nor does Xiang think reaching a basic level in a short time is too far-fetched. "If you work hard at it you could speak basic Mandarin in six months to one year, no problem," she says. "You're living in China, so you have the perfect environment to pick it up - you can listen to it everywhere and speak a little to someone every day."

Incidentally, Mandarin is the key dialect in China, spoken or understood by about 70 percent of the population and growing all the time, so it's the best one to learn.

Xiang says learning the four major tones is key to making yourself understood - words spoken in the wrong tone mean completely different things and often leave the listener utterly confused. This is an eye-opener for an English speaker, for whom tones are mostly irrelevant.

Johnson, a fellow China Daily journalist, is an example not only of what is possible with dedication but of the rewards that come your way.

He has just returned from a week-long holiday in Qingdao, a city in eastern Shandong province, bubbling with enthusiasm. "I had one week of not being able to speak English to anyone," he says, "and just consolidated everything I had learned.

"I was interacting with locals all the time. They were just coming up and wanting to talk to me. I couldn't have made the trip if I hadn't learned Chinese. It would have been too difficult."

Johnson only arrived in Beijing 14 months ago and credits his fast progress with the Taipei Language Institute. Mastery doesn't come cheap, though. He reckons he has racked up 66,000 yuan ($9,640) in bills there so far, equating to 600 one-to-one lessons at 110 yuan ($16.1) an hour, and has spent an equal amount of time on private study. For the first 10 months he studied oral Chinese only and switched to learning the Chinese characters three months ago.

"The more I learn of the language, the more I become Chinese," he says. "I am now reading the same stories the Chinese grew up with when they were at school."

The former rugby player says imposing a strict self-discipline on his studies came naturally. "I used to go training when my mates were out having a drink," he recalls. "It never bothered me. I am perfectly happy doing my own thing for hours on end."

Sure, there are times when it all gets too much - people speak too fast, phrases and sentences are too hard to remember, so Johnson advocates what he calls "the Baghdad approach" to his studies.

"Keep the tanks rolling - move on," he explains. "Don't get caught up in the minor details. The Americans didn't stop when they reached Baghdad, they kept going, past people, past the army, past anything. In other words, if you get stuck, just move on and don't get frustrated."

So if you're a rookie, weighing the pros and cons of spending precious time and money on Mandarin, Johnson has a final word: "It's well worth it. People really warm to you when they find they can communicate with you."

I am such a rookie and I say amen to that!

(China Daily 09/05/2008 page19)
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