Mind your language

Why 400 million Chinese can’t speak Mandarin


Must try harder

Putonghua, China’s official spoken language, translates as “common tongue”. But it wasn’t so common at the very beginning. In fact, it was viewed as the dialect of the nobility.

China’s official language during the Ming Dynasty is thought to have been a Han Chinese dialect from Nanjing, where the Ming emperors had based their capital. (It’s still debatable, but the records of Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci used many Romanised Chinese terms that are pronounced remarkably like the Nanjing dialect.)

After the Manchurians broke through the Great Wall and inaugurated the Qing Dynasty in 1644, Han Chinese were not allowed to live within the newly conquered royal palace. (Hence its rebranding as ‘the Forbidden City’). Beijing was separated into two ethnic zones: the Manchurian-speaking imperial rulers in the inner circle, and the Han Chinese, speaking the Ming official language, elsewhere.

The royal family had a problem though: the Manchurian language – spoken by nomadic tribes – had a limited lexicon that lacked the vocabulary to match a culture with 5,000 years of heritage. The newcomers needed to incorporate Han Chinese terms into their own language. This eventually evolved into what we know today as Mandarin.

Perhaps that’s why many Han Chinese scholars still query whether Mandarin is really representative, viewing it more as a language of occupation. There is even a widely circulated (but false) legend that Mandarin won by a single vote over Cantonese (a dialect of Guangdong province) when republican revolutionaries picked it as the official language in 1912. (In fact, no such meeting ever took place.)

Since the Chinese government standardised Putonghua in 1955, it has spent decades attempting to make it the common language at national level. For a country of thousands of minority groups and dialects, this is a matter of national unity as well as a pressing concern for effective governance. But how successful have the efforts been? Not as great as you might imagine.

Last week, the Ministry of Education said that up to 30% of the population, or 400 million people, still cannot speak any Mandarin. Even though the remainder can communicate in the language, a large number of Chinese still do not speak it well.

“Massive investment” in promoting Mandarin is still needed, said the ministry’s spokesman, under the slogan “Building a common Chinese dream”.

In another push for linguistic unity, the People’s Daily said future efforts would be focused on rural areas and regions populated by ethnic minorities.

Government efforts to popularise Mandarin have been hampered by the sheer size of the country, says the BBC, as well as sustained underinvestment in education, particularly in rural areas. Linguistic policies have also been contentious among ethnic minorities. In 2010, there were protests in Tibet about the use of Mandarin, for instance, as its usage was viewed as eroding Tibetan culture.

Regionalism also proves to be a factor among Han Chinese. In 2010 there was a furore when officials announced plans to replace Cantonese with Mandarin on Guangdong’s TV and radio stations. Hundreds of youngsters walked the streets of Guangzhou shouting a famous local Cantonese expletive about unpleasant things happening to other peoples’ mothers. This is a battle cry that dates back to the seventeenth century, it turns out. It was famously howled by Yuan Chonghuan, a Cantonese general defending the Great Wall against (you guessed it) the invading Manchurian army.

But the newest threat to Mandarin could be from English, reckons Wang Xueming, a former spokesman for the Ministry of Education. On his weibo last week he called for kindergartens to cancel English classes and boost the number of Chinese lessons instead.

Now president of local publisher Language and Culture Press, Wang’s remarks drew attention as they were released on Teachers’ Day. According to the Global Times, many netizens agreed that by spending so much time on English, student standards in Mandarin was suffering. “These years, so many people are learning English but our Chinese language proficiency is degrading quickly,” said one netizen.

Academics were less convinced. There is still no consensus on whether it’s better for students to learn English earlier or later in their school careers, Shi Zhongying, a professor with the Faculty of Education at Beijing Normal University, told the Global Times.

“Besides, it’s necessary to learn a foreign language, like English, in our globalised world,” Shi added.

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