Global Times: China’s Putonghua lives up to its name as language of the people USA – English APAC – English

BEIJING, Dec. 11, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — The Chinese language has made its formal entry onto the international language stage. No longer is it the preserve of fogey old professors keen to unravel the mysteries of a 5,000-year-old civilization, nor is it just a currency among old China hands hoping to negotiate on equal footing with New China. It has made a transition from a language seemingly far removed from much of the world and now fully embodies the true essence Putonghua (Standard Chinese) – the language of the masses.  

Likewise, Chinese language learning has graduated from being the pursuit of eccentric Western youth taking the academic road least traveled, and has become a part of mainstream education across the world. According to China’s Ministry of Education, 81 countries and counting have incorporated Chinese language learning into their national education curricula. For instance, it was recently revealed that Chinese has replaced Japanese as the second most popular foreign language after English in Thailand.

At the World Chinese Language Conference held in Beijing on Thursday, Deputy Minister Assistant at the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia Salim Al Anazy revealed how far the Middle Eastern country has gone to integrate Chinese into its national education curriculum. All secondary schools in Saudi Arabia now have dedicated periods for Chinese instruction, further aided by a memorandum signed by the Chinese and Saudi Arabian education ministries for the provision of learning materials to the latter by the former.

Moreover, the Chinese government annually extends Chinese language study scholarships to students in countries across the world who show exemplary talent in its acquisition. These and many more favorable measures have led to the growing popularity of Chinese, but does it go in any way toward solving prevailing misconceptions about the language itself?

For sinophiles around the world, the Chinese language holds the most important key to understanding the country’s ancient civilization. However, even after the simplification of traditional Chinese characters, a unique element of Putonghua, the language and its writing system still appear impossible to comprehend. Those who have learned Putonghua will admit that it is indeed not an easy language to master, but mastery brings fruitful rewards and unparalleled access to Chinese culture, history, contemporary Chinese society, and the Chinese spirit. The language regarded, in present day, with reverence and awe, has made a remarkable journey over thousands of years to arrive at its present form. 

However, even Greek, for centuries considered indecipherable by the European intelligentsia, uses the phrase “it’s all Chinese to me” to connote something impossible to understand. So, what is the truth? Is Putonghua really that hard to learn? Going by what my lecturers at the Beijing Language and Culture University – a mainstay in foreign language education in China – say, the answer is far more complex than a simple yes or no.

Depending on the rankings of languages in terms of difficulty you choose to refer to, Chinese, or Putonghua, is either adjacent to or one of the hardest languages to master. Of course, such rankings are biased in their assertion, whether intentional or innocent, as they consider difficulty in acquisition as a second language with regard to monolingual English or Indo-European language speakers.

As it turns out, this viewpoint vis-à-vis the acquisition of Chinese as a foreign language, is limited. As my lecturers would point out, Sub-Saharan African students tend to have excellent pronunciation and cadence, and don’t seem as phased by the language’s five-tone system. This might be because many Sub-Saharan African students already speak tonal African languages, and as such, can grasp the concept that the sound “ma” in one tone means mother, and in other means horse, and are less likely to inquire as to the state of your horse after you return from a short family visit to your hometown.

Moreover, learners more familiar with syllabaries used in their native languages as opposed to an alphabet, like Japanese, have a much easier time grasping the use of Chinese characters. These patterns are, however, not hard and fast rules, as attested by entertainment planner and agent Tiako Fako Camille. 

“The misconceptions I had before was that Chinese was difficult, especially the characters, but when we learned about the Chinese strokes I realized that, actually, it’s not that difficult,” said Camille, who also speaks French and English.

Camille is one of a growing number of international influencers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, who are captivating audiences with their fluent Chinese that also captures the illusive essence of “Chineseseness.” To his over 200,000 followers, Camille shares tidbits of his life and career in China.

“It [learning Chinese] helped me to have an open mind. Since I was able to learn Chinese, which is one of the most difficult languages in the world, it made me believe that everything is possible in life,” Camille mused.

What about those ever-illusive tones and their improbability to monolingual native English speakers? US mid-Westerner Jacob Paul Goering does concede their inherent challenge but doesn’t believe them impossible to grasp. After graduating from college in 2011, Goering was determined to learn a second language to near fluency, settling on Chinese. It’s been a decade since making that decision, and he has achieved his goal as he feels “quite at home in the language.”

“Before beginning Chinese, I assumed that the tones and characters would make it overwhelmingly difficult for foreign learners to attain fluency. While these aspects of Chinese remain challenges for me, they are not the unassailable roadblocks I once imagined them to be,” Goering noted with confidence.

Though Chinese language learning appears to be a new trend partly driven by China’s growing influence as an important world player, interest in Chinese has long existed. Many Sinophiles, over the decades, have not only learned but contributed to the language itself, by studying its origins and helping pioneer translations of famous Chinese works into other languages and vice versa.

Key among them is Bernhard Karlgren, a Swedish linguist and sinologist who first came to China in March 1910, and through fieldwork over a period of two years, helped fill in the blanks of ancient Chinese pronunciation based on the work of Chinese scholar Chen Li.

Karlgren’s contribution to the study of Chinese has since been lauded, and paved the way for other sinologists and linguists from Sweden, including Göran Malmqvist, known by his Chinese name Ma Yueran, who studied under Karlgren, and served as the Swedish cultural attaché to China in the 1950s before delving into Chinese translation in 1965.

Such contributions to the study of Chinese and China by foreign friends are carried on today by a new generation of linguists and translators who are dedicated to the mastery of Putonghua. Confucious Institutes around the world have made Chinese language learning far more accessible to international learners, while Chinese study grants offered to students interested in a more immersive language learning experience in-country offer unique opportunities to foster friendships between China and the rest of the world, and a way to ensure that the ancient language not only remains alive, but is appreciated by an ever-growing number of Putonghua enthusiasts.

As for Camille and Goering who find great fulfillment in a language that once felt indecipherable, they present a new face of a global youth joined in a path toward mutual understanding with the language of the people at the heart of the mission.

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SOURCE Global Times

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