China with Polish Characteristics

December 9, 2007

Mandarin, mon amour?

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 4:42 pm

I can still remember when some four years ago in college, I walked into our dorm room and found my dear roommate sitting by the window, uttering strange high-pitched noises which made him sound like an complete idiot. The frustrated determination in his face made it even funnier. My poor friend had just developed a massive crush for an exchange student from Dalian and decided he had to teach himself Chinese. But back then in Indiana – the great cornfield of America – it was an uphill battle. The only prominent foreign language in the area was Spanish. There were no classes offered, no textbooks and absolutely no one to give you direction at the start – the closest teacher my friend managed to locate, a Chinese expat, was at a community college over an hour away. His Chinese endeavor soon died a natural death. Sometimes it still blows my mind that only a few years later, Chinese language programs have mushroomed not just all over the US (check out this for a sample and this if you want more goodies) but across the world. It became the zesty thing to study, and the demand is visible in the Motherland as well. As “Teaching Chinese to Foreigners” climbed steadily to become one of the popular majors in Beijing’s universities, the local entrepreneurs started tripping over each other to open up private language schools for foreigners. There are at least couple dozen of these in the capital, many specializing in one-on-one classes, and the price for their services has been climbing steadily – as much as 100 RMB/hour in some, which was unheard of when I first came out here (who goes to these places??). State-backed enterprises took off as well, with China Radio International starting an on-air Confucius Institute, promoting Chinese learning in all 38 languages included in their programming. Crazy! Watching all this, and the rising cohorts of enthusiastic mandarin learners, I almost get the warm fuzzy feeling inside. It’s only that in 2/3 of the cases there seems to be little effect to it, despite the entire hype and the stardust. While many expats in Beijing have certainly fallen for the worldwide China-fashion, most I have met really don’t put any sincere effort into their studies. After a year or two, most have barely mastered a caveman-conversational level of the language, the kind which comes in handy only after a fourth or fifth beer. While studying Chinese is certainly not fun and games (that what God made the Romance languages for), and while certainly it shouldn’t be expected, one can’t help but scratch his head when watching the whole thing – can this language really be as universal as English one day? Maybe. But how? And when? It’s not gonna happen thanks to the loudspeakers.

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