The fact that Latin, a dead (although in its own way very useful) language, is more popular than Chinese says a lot about how far Chinese has to go.
Photo from Reuters
BEIJING (Reuters) - There has been a big rise in the number of foreigners learning Chinese, but still too few are studying the language, officials said on Thursday, worried this may affect efforts to soften China's global image.
China began setting up Confucius Institutes in 2004 to teach Chinese and they are now in 81 countries, but efforts to expand them are being hampered by too few teachers and poor teaching materials.
"At present, the basis for the studying or teaching of Chinese is very weak, unlike for English, French or Spanish, which have been popularized for hundreds of years," said Xu Lin, director of the Confucius Institute Headquarters.
Xu, speaking to reporters on the sidelines of China's annual meeting of parliament, said that in the United States more students studied Latin at middle school than Chinese.
"Though the desire to learn Chinese is very high, there is a lack of teachers and teaching materials," she added, referring specifically to the Confucius Institute.Read On
I believe Westerners believe studying Chinese is simply too hard. I know when I first came to China, I thought it would be impossible for me to ever really learn the language. Therefore, I put very little effort into my studies.
After being here for about six months, I realized that the language was not beyond my reach and began studying in earnest.
I've been studying Chinese for about two years. It is very difficult. I'm still not "fluent" by any means. I'm "conversational," but still run into trouble every day with my language skills. If I'd been studying Spanish and living in Spain for two years, I have little doubt that I'd be very "fluent" and would be at a much higher level than where I am with Chinese.
This difficulty level surely hurts Chinese when it comes to attracting interested students.
Saying that, there are a number of ways to study Chinese other than formally attending classes or going to the Confucius Institutes.
One method, chinesepod.com, has really taken off. From The Financial Times (h/t Peking Duck):
Ken Carroll is challenging a basic tenet in the global economy: that we all need to learn Mandarin Chinese to conquer the world’s largest market – but that learning Chinese is boring. Mr Carroll, a Shanghai-based language teacher turned internet entrepreneur, says that does not have to be so: he has pioneered a painless podcast method for learning Mandarin, and nearly a quarter of a million people worldwide are using it on chinesepod.com, which sends daily Mandarin lessons to iPods and Google phones around the world.Chinesepod is very popular amongst foreigners living in China. I've heard a number of friends talk about their experiences using the site.
Chinesepod revenues have defied the global economic downturn, too, rising 250 per cent from December 2007 to the same month last year and climbing strongly again in January, according to the company. Study without suffering may sound too good to be true, but there seem to be plenty of people willing to listen to this particular siren song, especially now that more professionals are taking enforced vacations from the workforce, giving them time to learn new skills such as languages.
Investment analysts think education in China could even prove to be a recession-proof business. Bejing’s National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language says 40m foreigners studied Mandarin last year. Chinesepod is riding that wave: with China’s economy expected to grow by 8 per cent this year – compared with a flat global economy – learning Chinese has rapidly begun to look like a clever investment.Read On
I believe Chinesepod's popularity shows just how much more popular studying Chinese is with business people or people living abroad compared to younger students living outside of China. Older people who don't have the time to formally study a language yet realize that learning Chinese is going to get them ahead are turning to means such as Chinesepod.
Personally, I don't use Chinesepod. I know I should. I have four hours of one-on-one lessons a week instead. It'd be great if I had the motivation to sit down and listen or study on the Chinesepod.com site a little bit every day, but I don't. When I eventually do come back to America, it'd probably be a good idea for me to get into Chinesepod.
That, and speaking more Chinese with Jackie. I still stand by the fact that having a Chinese significant other who speaks great English isn't much help with studying Chinese. It is just too easy for us to revert back to English. Jackie and I just don't speak Chinese with each other very well.
I'm hopeful that Jackie and I can speak more Chinese once we leave China though. I think it'll be a lot of fun speaking Chinese with Jackie in America when other people will have no idea what we're talking about. It'll be like our code language where we can say whatvever we want when we don't want others to understand.
From the strikingly low numbers of people studying Chinese abroad, I don't think we'll have too much trouble with people understanding what we're saying if we do resort to using Chinese as code language in the US.