Mandarin Chinese gaining popularity in public schools


NPR reports that Mandarin Chinese is gaining popularity in public schools. (But please oh please don't take pronunciations lessons from the student at time code 3:25. His first tone was clearly a second—falling victim to the classic mistake of applying English tone shaping to Chinese syllables.) On the other hand, some of those students who chose to study Mandarin Chinese didn't, um, do their homework:

Some say they are here by accident or because they thought it would be an easy "A". Oops.

I do admire the argument of one parent against learning Chinese:

Everybody is going to speak English. I'm sure the Chinese all speak English.

That's right. The Chinese all speak English. The accent? That's just an affectation.

Comments (31)
  1. Brody says:

    “Everybody is going to speak English. I’m sure the Chinese all speak English.”

    Suppose the parent had said “Everybody is going to use the Metric System. I’m sure the Chinese all use the Metric System.”

    Scientists and engineers benefit greatly from having everyone use a single, common mesaurement system for international collaboration. Should scientists and engineers be more culturally sensitive, and begin using a variety of culture-specific measurement systems?

    One of my German friends told me that all German shool children are required to learn English.

    How is English different from the Metric System? It seems to me that both are de facto standards for international communication.

    [Try writing poetry in the Metric System. (Despite English being compulsory for decades in German schools, my extremely limited experience suggests that those who do not have to deal with non-German-speakers on a regular basis [and even some who do] quickly forget their English as soon as they graduate. I don’t blame them for it, either. I studied German for years, but it’s largely forgotten now due to atrophy.) -Raymond]
  2. Mihai says:

    <<It seems to me that both are de facto standards for international communication.>>

    For now.

    The "top language" changed in time (and it also differs a lot by region).

    In Europe French was for a long time the language of the literature and politics.

    Then German became the top for mechanical & electrical engineering.

    Now English is the top for computers and management/marketing.

    Do you look at history, nothing is forever. Empires come and go.

  3. dbt says:

    I spent two weeks in Shenzhen, CN.  It’s an area extremely likely to be high in english speakers (young city, attracts tech workers, close to Hong Kong).  

    About 5% of the people I encountered spoke English.

    They were all very friendly.

  4. English is different from the metric system not least because the U.S. Congress loves the former & is lukewarm or cooler toward the latter. Poetry in the metric system might well be a problem; iambic pentameter is five feet to the line, which doesn’t convert at all well to meters.

    Raymond is quite correct about the Germans, as far as I can tell.

  5. Adam says:

    George > I find that iambic pentameter has a rather good meter actually :)

  6. A minor detail: It sounded like the teacher was teaching students to say Russia (俄罗斯) in the program. The first character, 俄, should be pronounced in the second tone, not the fourth tone she used. The teacher is probably from Taiwan.

  7. Mac says:

    The dictionary officially publishedissued in Taiwan also indicates the "second tone", but almost everyone lives here use the fourth. No idea why…

  8. Morten says:

    Why make so much out of it? English is the de facto international language. Everyone I know can speak english and none of them was taught by their parents.

    When I was I child we prodly joked among ourselves that we Scandinavians were the only europeans (sans the British and Irish ofcourse) who could speak english. I don’t think so any more. Everywhere you go in Europe a lot people can speak english, but not everyone ofcourse. But more now than ever.

    Is there room for more than one international language (i.e. can Mandarin be one too)? Possible, I don’t know, but I don’t think english as an international language is in decline; nor stagnating.

  9. George Jansen says:

    Adam > I knew I should have said "blank verse".

  10. Anony Moose says:

    Sheesh, I thought everyone knows that by the time we abandon Earth everyone will speak English except when they need to swear, and then Chinese will be necessary.   ;)

    More seriously, my vote for a common language would be "anything that isn’t tonal or welsh and has an alphabet with less than 50 characters, and for the love of all that anyone may consider holy, make the spelling phonetic, ok?"

  11. Jay B says:

    So, if someone did want to learn Mandarin Chinese, what would be the best way?

    I am interested, but in the (albiet limited) time I’ve spent researching the best way to learn, I haven’t found anything that looks very promising.  It’s mostly just a lot of repeating phrases.  I want to actually understand the language.

    Can anyone point me in the right direction?

  12. Rick C says:

    I always find it wildly funny when people call Instapundit a right-winger.

  13. Brian says:

    since we’re making a wish list for a common language, I’ll add mine: one gender!  That’s the hardest thing about German/Spanish/French/etc.  Three separate genders with no clear rule defining which objects are which gender.

  14. Chris says:

    <blockquote>Everybody is going to speak English. I’m sure the Chinese all speak English.</blockquote>

    How much do you wanna bet we hear this, or subtle variations, *a lot*, from Fox News and Instapundit and other hard-right wing ‘news’ sources in the future?

  15. Mac says:

    I don’t think anyone is challenging English as the international language, but it might be just bit easier for one to communicate with Chinese people if he/she knows the language.

    Learning a language is just one important way to know the people using it.

  16. Drake Wilson says:

    Different systems of quantitative units that measure the same things are usually interconvertible mathematically with an arbitrary degree of precision.  Converting between feet and meters, converting between gallons and liters, and converting between degrees Fahrenheit and degrees Celsius are all well-defined (modulo possible quibbles about which exact unit definitions to use) and doable without information loss to the extent that you’re willing to preserve all the output digits.

    Different natural languages are significantly more different than that; there’s a huge amount of context and culture that goes into natural language, and translating losslessly between natural languages is extremely difficult at best, and usually impossible.

  17. ericduran@hotmail.com says:

    What ever happened to good, ol’ Spanish? If a Spanish lastname (García) is the second most common lastname in the US, I can’t wait to see when the imperialist and self-center US goverment declares Spanish as an official US language.

    About the common language’s wish list: Anony Moose and Brian are spot-on. The only thing I hate about English is the pronunciation. If only it could be completely phonetic and with simpler, flatter sounds…

  18. Surge says:

    If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s got to be ok for everybody else…

  19. Dominic says:

    Surge bet me too it. There’s a good song about it, actually, called ‘The Queen’s English’ by The Muttonbirds.

    On a west coast station, there was a US congressman,

    A guest on a radio show on the subject of language.

    And he said:

    "I am a great one for giving people their due, but you have to draw the line somewhere.

    And when I look up ahead, I can only see one world.

    And it’s a world without interpreters and phrase-books, because…

    [Chorus]

    The Queen’s English was good enough for Jesus Christ, and it’s good enough for me."

  20. Jules says:

    "Poetry in the metric system might well be a problem; iambic pentameter is five feet to the line, which doesn’t convert at all well to meters."

    But those are metric feet, which are of course 300mm.  Therefore a line of iambic pentameter is a metre and a half.

  21. Buffett says:

    中文是我的母语,我热爱它。

  22. Marcel says:

    Regarding the "English in Germany" thing, English is simply a subject in school just like maths. Pretty much everybody had to learn solving equations at some point in their life, too, but not everybody can still do it…

  23. Sam Hopkins says:

    Jay B, have you tried this site?

    http://www.chinesepod.com/

    I found it pretty good – and you can get quite a few lessons without having to sign up.

  24. Cooney says:

    The Chinese all speak English.

    I have a hard enough time understanding Australians speaking English – I don’t want to think about Chinese english.

    Seriously, though, I know someone from Indonesia who’s trying to improve her english. she’s always yelling at me to stop with the slang because she wants to learn ‘proper english’. Won’t accept that there’s no such thing.

  25. Cheong says:

    I think it’s more appropiate to say that "most people live in traditional open ports of China are able to speak English". Mainly because if they want to trade with foreigners, they have to be able to speak English.

  26. Dan Hirsch says:

    As far as the common language thing goes, my vote is toward Esperanto, or Lojban, or a similarly obscure "artificial" language. That way everybody’s at an equal disadvantage

  27. Shane says:

    Mac, the official dictionary used in Taiwan is very close to the one used in the mainland. However, that doesn’t stop most of Taiwan from pronouncing "zh, ch, sh" as "z, c, s," or from using different tones from the official dictionary. One of the biggest things when I started formally learning Chinese (from northern mainland teachers) was that I’d pronounce certain words with a non-standard tone – for example, I had always pronounced 期 with a 2nd tone, but my dictionary officially says it’s a 1st tone. Also, the 什 in 什麼, or the 法 in 法國 (but not 辦法), I would pronounce the way my parents did. No big deal, though – I have a work accent and a home accent now, where I still talk to my family the way I always did, but bring a more standard accent to work when I interact mainly with people from the Mainland.

  28. Cooney says:

    As far as the common language thing goes, my vote is toward Esperanto, or Lojban, or a similarly obscure "artificial" language. That way everybody’s at an equal disadvantage

    Why? they’re artificial and nobody uses them. We’re humans – when we need a common language, we make one, and it changes over time.

  29. Not all Chinese speak English. It depends on where they’re born and where they’re from.

    Most Chinese in Singapore speaks English, except the older generation of people, who use their particular dialect of Chinese.

    Most Chinese in China speaks Mandarin, or a dialect of Chinese. The older generation use their own dialect.

  30. Phill says:

    ‘More seriously, my vote for a common language would be "anything that isn’t tonal or welsh and has an alphabet with less than 50 characters, and for the love of all that anyone may consider holy, make the spelling phonetic, ok?"’

    What’s wrong with Welsh? It’s an incredibly phonetic language. Once you known what the sounds of all the letters are. I will admit though, as a non-speaker, I do find the more gutteral sounds very hard to get my tongue around.

  31. Phill says:

    ‘More seriously, my vote for a common language would be "anything that isn’t tonal or welsh and has an alphabet with less than 50 characters, and for the love of all that anyone may consider holy, make the spelling phonetic, ok?"’

    What’s wrong with Welsh? It’s an incredibly phonetic language, once you know what the sounds of all the letters are. Though I will admit, as a non-speaker, I do find the more gutteral sounds very hard to get my tongue around.

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