Across the country and the
world, Chinese language
learning is exploding. What
had been a mysterious and
arcane language studied only
by Asian specialists is now the subject of fast-growing
interest in schools and universities.
In 2004, according to the Asia Society,
263 American schools and school districts offered
Chinese. That number had increased to
477 by May 2007, when the College Board's
Advanced Placement exam in Mandarin was
administered for the first time. In addition,
Minnesota, Oregon, and Utah all have pending
legislation to fund Chinese-language
programs in their schools. This linguistic sea
change is tidal, not sudden, but the trend toward
the teaching and learning of Chinese,
particularly Mandarin, as a valuable new second
language, is clear to see.
Trained teachers of Chinese are in short
supply in American schools, however, so
the Chinese government has stepped in to
help, and the Freeman Foundation, which
fosters East-West understanding, has funded
six universities to develop teacher-training
programs for Chinese. From first graders in
immersion programs to MBAs seeking high-paying
posts in Shanghai, the number of
people learning Chinese is growing fast.
In response, the Chinese Ministry of
Education developed Chengo, a Web site
for English-speaking secondary school
students, and China's National Office for
Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language has
established Confucius Institutes to promote
Chinese language and culture around the
world, in partnership primarily with local
universities and public school districts. In
the United States, these facilities are located
at more than a dozen universities and on a
Chicago Public Schools campus.
The establishment of these institutes
could go a long way toward clearing up misunderstandings
about Chinese language and
culture. For example, Mandarin, the official
national dialect, has four tones, often the
most challenging part of learning Chinese
for English speakers. One sound, such as
"ma," can be written in many ways with such
diverse meanings as "mother" or "horse,"
and each must be correctly pronounced
in one of the four tones. Regional dialects,
such as southern Cantonese, involve widely
varying pronunciations but all share the
same characters. (In terms of regional variations,
American English isn't that different.)
To read a newspaper requires knowledge of
about 4,000 characters.
But within this complexity lies simplicity
and beauty. Unlike Romance languages such
as French, for example, Chinese requires no
conjugation of verbs and shifting of tenses.
The Chinese simply say when an event or
action occurred. Chinese characters, often
quite daunting at first, have their own system
of roots, called radicals, that give clues to
their meanings. For instance, words related
to water all share the same three "droplets"
on the left side of the character. Mastering
the writing of characters has the additional
benefit of opening a window on the world of
Chinese calligraphy, regarded as one of the
highest art forms, traditional or modern.
And those who do take up this activity are
in good company: As a Chinese official said
at the announcement of the AP Mandarin
exam, "Many Americans think that Chinese
is difficult to learn, but we have more than a
billion people who speak it."
Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.