A readers' guide to learning Chinese
Do you want to learn Chinese? You do if you know just how important the language is going to be in your future. Here’s how to get started
ARE WE ALL TRYING TO LEARN CHINESE?
We should hope so. China could soon overtake the US as the world’s largest superpower. Across Ireland, students are getting ready for a sea change in global politics. Chinese language and culture are set to form a core part of the overhauled Junior Cert syllabus (see panel). Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has also announced plans to offer Chinese as a Leaving Cert subject. University College Dublin and University College Cork already offer undergraduate and postgraduate degrees with Chinese language and cultural components.
WHAT’S THE POINT OF SPEAKING CHINESE?
Amid vague talk about culture and mutual understanding, cold hard economics continually emerges as the key reason for learning Mandarin Chinese. China has 20 per cent of the world’s population. It is a huge marketplace. A recent report by Boston Consulting pointed to the emergence of a vast middle class in China, estimated to be worth $10 trillion in 2020 alone. Ireland sees China as an enormous market for its exports, particularly in the food sector, but building these relationships won’t happen unless at least some Irish people have an understanding of Chinese language and culture; English is learned at school in China, but it is not widely spoken.
WHO’S DRIVING THIS FORWARD?
Ireland lags behind our European partners in providing Chinese-language education: we need to catch up or be left behind, and the Government is determined to change this. But the real impetus is coming from China. The Chinese government has established 388 Confucius Institutes in more than 100 countries. In Ireland the first Confucius Institute was established in 2006 in association with UCD. Not to be outdone, UCC opened a Confucius Institute two years later. They offer Chinese-language courses at all levels, develop teaching and research in Chinese studies, and promote the language and awareness of the culture. Last year UCC was awarded the prestigious title of the world’s best Confucius Institute.
ARE ANY SCHOOLS TEACHING THE SUBJECT?
Yes, believe it or not. Mandarin Chinese has become a popular subject in transition year. Some schools, such as Belvedere College in Dublin, offer it as an extracurricular subject, and students can gain a formally recognised qualification. Coláiste Chiaráin in Limerick, the only school in the country that is already offering the new short courses of the revised Junior Cert syllabus, teaches Mandarin as an optional subject during school hours. Cork and Dublin have the largest number of participating schools, but the course is also on offer in Dundalk, Sligo, Maynooth and Kerry. Numbers are expected to rise
ISN’T IT NOTORIOUSLY DIFFICULT?
The most challenging aspects of the language are the different sounds and tones of the language. It includes vocalisations that don’t exist in Indo-European languages. The same word, pronounced with different inflections, can have very different meanings; it is possible, for instance, to call a person’s mother a horse if you’re not careful. On the other hand, the grammatical structures are generally seen as less complicated than European languages’. Once a good foundation is put in place and tones are developed, vocabulary can be increased rapidly.