Society

Mind your language

Mandarin starts to go global

Glasgow kiss: the Scottish city is opening its first Confucius Classroom

Have you ever considered how confusing it is to students of the English language students that the place you play golf – a golf club – is the same as the thing you hit the ball with – a golf club. Evidently, English, with its eccentric nuances, is a challenge to master.

But consider how tough it must be to learn Chinese. With around 47,000 characters to memorise (many take more than 20 strokes to complete), the language uses a transliteration system called Pinyin that expresses Chinese words in the 26-letter English alphabet. Further complicating matters, Mandarin uses tones to distinguish words from each other – the same Pinyin term has four different definitions depending on the intonation. Confused yet?

However, with the country’s breakneck economic growth, the number of foreigners studying the famously difficult language has been on the increase. According to the China Daily, there are as many as 40 million people now learning Chinese as a second language, a significant increase from about 25 million five years ago. Zhang Xinsheng, vice minister of education, attributes the increased popularity of the Chinese language to the fact that “they [the foreigners] have seen China’s future.”

To enhance the country’s image internationally, Beijing has established the Confucius Institute, a non-profit body that aims to promote Chinese language and culture overseas. The original plan was to open 100 institutes by 2008, but as of March this year, this has grown to 256 in 81 countries, thanks to robust demand. The government’s goal has now been revised to 500 Confucius Institutes by 2010.

To highlight China’s increasingly global clout, even the Scots are asking for a Confucian classroom of their own. According to Scottish newspaper The Herald, Glasgow, (where only 2% of the population is ethnically Chinese) wants to be first. to get Mandarin lessons. The paper also says that the UK Government has urged every school, college, and university to partner with an equivalent in China within the next five years to bring Chinese to their curriculum.

Interestingly enough, despite the recently strained Sino-French relationship, Chinese is the fastest developing foreign language in France too. The number of students studying Chinese has increased by 30% annually in recent years, says Xavier Darcos, France’s Minister of Education.


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