Monday, January 23, 2006

Mandarin... or Math?

The Chinese-learning craze continues, if we are to believe the flurry of news articles I'm getting every day. There's always something about some school somewhere in the State (or Thailand, or the UK) starting to offer Mandarin classes. There was a NY Times article a couple weeks ago about a Chinese government project to open a chain of Chinese-language schools called "Confucius Institute" around the world (the original is behind their Select Archive wall, but here's a copy from the SF Chronicle).

One poster to a C-E translation-oriented mailing list recently said Chinese is just too hard for it to be a worthwhile venture for most students. He was attacked as having bought into the myth that "foreigners just can't learn Chinese," but I think he had a point. Well, it's not so difficult, but it's time-consuming. According to the Foreign Service Institute, it takes more than three times the instruction hours for a native English speaker to become fluent in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Arabic than German, French, or Spanish. (Not that becoming fluent is the only goal in learning a language--if it were, Japan's juku industry would be bankrupt!)

In this opinion piece, Bloomberg columnist, Andy Mukherjee, reacts to reports that "the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee is considering a proposal to allocate $1.3 billion to public schools":

In 2004, Alan Greenspan, talked about math education's being a threat to U.S. competitiveness in a Senate Banking Committee hearing. The Federal Reserve chairman's concerns were validated in a Bloomberg News article last week about the Chartered Financial Analyst exams.

Chinese students, the article said, had the highest pass rate in the world in last month's CFA Level I test, followed by Germany and India. The U.S. was fourth.

Kindergarten students in Portland, Oregon, are learning that a triangle is "San-Jiao" in Mandarin, according to the Associated Press. They might learn something more useful by playing with an abacus.

See the original AP story he's reacting to here.


IbaDaiRon said...

This morning before leaving for work I caught a CNN report on a school in Brighton, England, that has started teaching Mandarin.

You're right, there's a lot about China in the media lately.

Smoke screen for something else, perhaps?

Anonymous said...

I'm a linguist and I am glad that at least somebody out there is willing to say this: Chinese is indeed too difficult to be taught in schools to average native English speakers. It is not possible to master either the pronounciation (an often overlooked difficulty) or the tone system without being in a Chinese speaking environment for at least a few months. As for reading, building up even basic competence takes many years and the rewards will not justify the effort for most people. I translate Chinese into English (part-time) and I believe it is a myth that the world will be using this language widely in decades to come. English will retain, perhaps even expand, its preeminence as more Chinese learn it, just as Latin lived on and grew even after the Roman Empire vanished. There is no cultural imperialism in this. It is just an unfortunate linguistic quirk of Chinese that its phonetic system is extremely difficult, for ALL foreigners, even other East Asians, and the writing system is the most demanding in the world.