Thursday, March 12, 2009

Foreigners Still Not Studying Mandarin

Living in China, it seems to me like there are foreigners everywhere studying Chinese. It turns out that there are a lot here doing so, but not so many outside of China.

From Reuters:

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
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.

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,, 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, which sends daily Man­darin lessons to iPods and Google phones around the world.

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
Chinesepod is very popular amongst foreigners living in China. I've heard a number of friends talk about their experiences using the site.

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 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.


Anonymous said...

1. ChinesePod: no doubt that it's very popular. Is there any objective and professional peer review that users of ChinesePod in fact manage to learn better and faster from the site compared to other current methods? This would mean measuring progress of the quality of the language learned and especially the tones and correct pronunciation. ChinesePod seem to be a "happy" place which presents a langauge in a certain way. It might be effective, but it also might like some users who go to motivational lectures where the users come out all happy and sure of their new way, but in fact they are not.

2. You mention that you found Chinese stuyding to be difficult. There seem to be many anecdotes, including on ChinesePod on how local Chinese would pretty much do all possible to speak English to foreigners and not Chinese. Have you met something similar and if so is it a part of the difficulty of learning the language?

Anonymous said...

Just to add to 1) that one of the reason I'd ask this question is because of another product.

There's Rosetta Stone, a software which is recommended by many as extremely efficient for retaining vocab and getting a feel for the langauges.

I read awesome reviews on people trying to use the software and claiming how great method it is and so on.

Until one day I stumbled upon a review, for a specific langauge taught by this software. This review, unlike the others, actually went in details into the content, the grammar the selection of vocab and came up with various errors and poorly made choices of vocab.

Mark said...

You might be right on ChinesePod. Like I said, I've never used it, but I wouldn't be surprised if the phenomenon you describe is indeed true.

While listening to podcasts about contemporary topics is interesting, I would think that getting proficient with SuperMemo would also require a lot more studying outside of those podcasts and daily lessons to really get the information to stick.

In regards to people speaking English with me, that is definitely true. A lot of people do want to try to speak English with me. But a vast majority if the Chinese people I encounter (well above 90%), don't speak any English. So there are plenty of opportunities to speak Chinese with Chinese people here.

The problem with my girlfriend is that she is fluent in English so when my intermediate level-ish Chinese gets stuck, we just revert back to English.

As far as Rosetta Stone goes, I hear it is great. It seems like I've heard that "it is the study method of the State Dept." or something like that. In regards to grammar and vocab, it probably errs on the side of formal Chiense where ChinesePod is surely more on the informal/useful side.

If you really want to retain vocab, I think SuperMemo is vital to studying Chinese. I've written about this before here:

You can check out a free (paper) version of SuperMemo here:

Thomas said...

In my opinion, the Chinese language will never really take off in Europe and the US. It's just too damn hard.

I speak fluent French and Italian, and in both cases, it took me less than 2 years to get to a "close to fluent" stage, and it never felt like hard work.

The amount of work I've put into studying Chinese is probably more than into French and Italian combined, and what have I achieved? Something called "upper intermediate level", which sounds impressive, but based on the 1,000-1,500 characters I can read, it takes me an hour and endless frustration to roughly guess the content of a newspaper article. And I cannot have a meaningful conversation with my wife or mother-in-law, because even if I can come up with enough words to express what I want to say, they have this funny little accent which other native speakers tell me is perfectly acceptable Mandarin, but to me it sounds like they are speaking a different language. So I usually have no clue what they are saying, even if it is comparatively simple stuff.

Back in college, 18 years ago, I first took a Chinese class. We were 30 students at the outset. The course got discontinued after half a year, because there were only 2 students left. Everybody else had given up in frustration.

I know several dozen people (European and American) that have started to study Chinese at some point, either because of a significant other, or because they had intensive business dealings with China, or both. None of them has gotten close to where I am now, they have all pretty much given up.

As for myself, I sometimes still pick up a study book, but I've resigned myself to never being able to follow a conversation or read a newspaper, so it's pretty much a useless hobby.

(As for my wife, she of course speaks fluent English, and after we met, it took her less than 2 years to speak fluent German...)

Anonymous said...

1. Chinese will not become as popular as English because demand for Chinese is not as great as English in China: Over a quarter of the Chinese population is studying English; to a foreigner, they'll think: "to successfully communicate, all we need is one common language, since you are working so hard to learn English, we might as well use English, no need for me to study Chinese."

2. Chinesepod provide "Chinese lessons" to paid customers by updating their podcast on a regular basis. This, in my opinion, is not teaching or learning a language in a systematic fashion. I call this getting by, emergency use only. If you really wants to learn Chinese, sign up for a class and interact with fellow students and teachers; or better, come to China and interact with the local people.

Anonymous said...

Without a doubt, Chinese is frikkin hard, and it continues to remain difficult for me. I spent more study time in my elective Chinese course than the rest of my courses combined in 4th year computer science. Studying Chinese is like entering a black hole of knowledge: the more you are drawn in, the more you realize you don't know. Chinese will never achieve the popularity of studying English, but then again, being the world's most popular language at 882M speakers (vs English's 380M and Spanish at 325M), I don't think they need to worry.

While I will never be a good reader or writer, the ability to converse with ANY Mandarin speaker on the planet is doable. It's fun to be able to speak to others in their native Mandarin here in Toronto. You never know when it'll come in handy.

I also believe you also cannot fully understand Chinese culture (as much as possible) without being able to speak Chinese.

Sure Chinese is hard to learn and will never be popular in North America, but if you want the keys to the most populous country in the world, studying Mandarin is mandatory.

Mark said...

Chinese is tough, but I agree that it is possible for foreigners to learn it.

I don't have any "natural language skills." I coasted my way through Spanish for three years in high school and three semesters in college never really getting it.

But after a couple years of real effort put into studying Chinese and living in China, I can at least have fun with the language.

I also agree with Don that getting into speaking Chinese (and Chinese characters!) is vital for "understanding Chinese culture."

My problem is where Don says he's doing OK: the ability to converse with ANY Mandarin speaker on the planet.

Younger people I'm generally OK with, but I have a hell of a time speaking with older people or people with stronger "accents" here in Shaanxi Province.

Like Thomas, not understanding anything that someone is saying to me is the thing that frustrates me most in Chinese. I feel after the time and effort that I've put in, this should not happen any more. But unfortunately, this happens on a fairly regular basis.

I consider my Chinese to be at the lower to middle intermediate level. I'm not sure if this level (or the level I eventually become) is ever going to get me a job or anything, but I've had, and am having, a lot of very fulfilling experiences with it.

Anonymous said...

As for getting a better job because you know Mandarin, my experience is it does not help.

Most older folk and farmers can really butcher Mandarin with their local dialect, changing intonation and using non-standard or local dialect words, so I don't feel bad for asking for clarification. It is they who do not speak Mandarin, not you. Only Mandarin, by law, is used all in schools. CCTV broadcasts in Mandarin. They all will understand you with no issues. All young people, educated people, and all people from North Eastern China should all speak great Mandarin.

Have you heard Deng Xiaoping or Mao speak? Damn if I could understand anything. "Hunan" turns into "fulan". It's not you, it's them.

Mark said...

I've never studied Chiense to get rich. When I talk with friends or family from back home, they all assure me that I'll have so many opportunities open because I can speak an intermediate-ish level of Chinese.

I'm not nearly as sold on this. From what I understand, simply knowing the language isn't going to get me rich.

Instead, I'll need to use it to complement the other skills that I have.

BTW, I'm most likely headed back to America sometime in the next few months this summer. Anyone want to give me a job??!

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