A readers' guide to learning Chinese

Tue, Oct 16, 2012, 01:00

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.

ARE THERE ANY EXTRA BENEFITS TO LEARNING THE LANGUAGE?

There is a strong body of evidence to show that dyslexia has a language barrier; the symbolic rather than alphabetical script used in Chinese and Japanese is much more accessible to students with reading difficulties. One school principal told The Irish Times that a student with severe dyslexia is not only thriving but racing to the head of their TY Chinese language class.

WHAT ARE STUDENTS LEARNING ABOUT CHINESE CULTURE?

Transition-year students learn about 14 aspects of Chinese culture, including food, arts, celebrations and festivals (such as Chinese New Year), manners and traditional greetings, calligraphy, martial arts, and philosophy. Students also explore China’s system of government.

HOW DO THEY DEAL WITH CONTENTIOUS POLITICAL ISSUES?

They don’t. The curriculum does not address issues such as Tibetan and Taiwanese independence, the persecution of the Falun Gong movement, or the suppression of free speech in China. Some teachers have expressed unease at this, with one stating that teachers fear that they could be “in trouble if they deviated from the party line” when teaching Chinese language and culture. These concerns have been voiced by academics expressing concern that the institutes may limit their freedom to discuss Chinese politics and human-rights issues. A prominent academic in Chinese studies said that the issue of human rights is “always raised, but it becomes tedious. It is one aspect of China. We are trying to create positive relationships without our Chinese counterparts feeling under constant attack”.

MY CHILD’S SCHOOL ISN’T OFFERING THE SUBJECT. MOVE SCHOOLS?

No need for that. The Confucius Institutes are keen to expand throughout Ireland and offer more language courses, but supply is driven by demand. In advance of Mandarin being offered as a short course on the new Junior Cert syllabus from 2014, it’s up to individual schools to offer it as a TY or extracurricular subject, with support from the institutes. Parents can only push for the subject to made available by contacting the school; the institutes are generally able to provide resources to interested schools.

IS THE LANGUAGE OFFERED AT IRISH UNIVERSITIES?

Dublin Institute of Technology runs a four-year BA course in Chinese and international business; students study both business and the language. UCC has a four-year BA in Chinese studies, in which students learn about the language, culture and society, as well as spending a year at a partner university in China. UCC also offers a four-year bachelor of commerce (international) in Chinese studies. UCD’s bachelor of commerce in business with Chinese studies is a four-year course that also involves spending a year in China. UCD’s Confucius Institute runs evening courses for adult learners in Chinese language and culture.

I’M LONG PAST MY STUDENT DAYS BUT I’D LIKE TO LEARN CHINESE

Adult education is opening up possibilities for adult learners, with Mandarin courses available at many local colleges, often as night courses, including Crumlin College for Further Education, Dublin; Bishopstown Community School, Cork; and Tullamore Adult Education Centre. Contact your local adult-education centre for more details.

Chinese and the new Junior Cert: how will the system work?

The controversial new Junior Cert syllabus, hailed as the biggest education shake-up for more than 20 years, will provide plenty of opportunity to learn Mandarin. Schools will be able to run short courses that can include anything from digital media to animal care or Chinese language and culture.

The UCC and UCD Confucius Institutes have been co-operating to develop a short course in Chinese language and culture, but schools will be free to deviate from this based on local needs. Some may, for instance, hone in on Chinese culture and minimise the language learning.

Mandarin is growing quickly in global education, presenting Irish schools with the challenge of finding enough teachers to meet demand. Most of the language teaching is being done by native Chinese speakers; the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and the Confucius Institutes are also keen to ensure that more impetus and direction come from local teachers.

The roll-out of Mandarin will be closely watched by the department. Last May Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn announced that Chinese will join Japanese, Arabic and Hebrew as a Leaving Cert subject, although he could not say when this would happen.

Getting started: A few words of Chinese

Chinese is written in characters that are each associated with a single syllable. There are tens of thousands of characters, but only a few thousand are used regularly. The vast majority of Chinese characters are not pictograms; some 600 would be classified as such. Considering some of these can bring insight into Chinese culture.

The tonesChinese has four “pitched” tones and a “toneless” tone. A sound can have a completely different meaning depending on which tone is used.

1st toneHigh and level ma = mother

2nd toneStarts medium in tone and then rises ma = hemp

3rd toneStarts low, dips and then rises ma = horse

4th toneStarts at the top and falls sharply ma = scold

TonelessNo emphasis

This has led to a tongue-twister:

It means: Mother rides a horse, the horse is slow, mother scolds the horse.

Compiled by David O’Grady

Chinese-language co-ordinator at Belvedere College, Dublin

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