Saturday, September 16, 2017

Chinese as a world language?

There's an interesting article in LitHub by Tom Mullaney titled TO ABOLISH THE CHINESE LANGUAGE: ON A CENTURY OF REFORMIST RHETORIC. A couple of thoughts to share, as someone who studied Mandarin in Taiwan the 1990s, encouraged his kids to learn Mandarin here and in Taiwan, and still loves to study 4-character colloquialisms:
  • "Chinese is a world script" - The author notes the rising popularity of Chinese classes in schools all over the world. I love the challenge of learning this beautifully complex system of communication, but I think Chinese script is actually holding back Mandarin (and other Chinese dialects) from becoming more widely spoken. It's difficult to write properly, and adds another layer of complexity to remembering vocabulary. I think it's much easier for people to learn a language that has an alphabet-based script, and it's possible to go further with such a language in a given period of time. For students in the West, the prospect of gaining a little proficiency in Spanish in two or three years' time -- not to mention being able to read and write a fair amount of Spanish -- seems very appealing. I don't think that's possible with Chinese, unless the student makes a significant effort and/or endeavors to do an immersion program in Taiwan or China. (One interesting exception: Japanese students have very little trouble with written Chinese, thanks to their own use of kanji, a set of 1,000 or so Chinese characters used for place and personal names and certain vocabulary).
  •  The rise of software to write Chinese characters has really made it much easier to write. I say this as someone who learned in the dark ages before such software was widely available. If I had to write a sentence in Chinese using a pen and paper it would be painful for both myself and the reader ... but on my phone or using a laptop or desktop computer I can manage social media, email, and other lightweight uses thanks to easy pinyin input systems. It's improved my reading ability, too, because now I am interacting in Chinese on my devices using written language that's more like spoken Mandarin, whereas 20 years ago most of the printed materials I encountered tended to be written in more formal style.
  • Mandarin as a world language. The increasing importance of the Chinese economy is becoming a big driver for spoken Mandarin in other parts of the world. I've encountered Thais and Vietnamese who can speak it quite well (but not write) in order to do business or interact with Chinese tourists. A friend who recently visited Italy saw the same thing in high-end shops with young Italians behind the counters being able to speak proficient Mandarin.
  • I disagree with the idea that the lack of spaces between words are a problem. Chinese grammar is very straightforward, and once you have sentence structure and a large enough vocabulary it's not hard to figure where words start and end (even if you don't know a specific term).
  • There are interesting examples in Vietnam and Korea of societies that abandoned Chinese characters in favor of their own alphabets. It's true that cultures lose the connection with ancient literature and older historical documents ... but not their history, thanks to the spread of literacy and public education combined with a strong interest in history and famous people from centuries past.

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