Not Enough Foreigners Learning Chinese, say Officials

Reuters came out with an article about how China’s officials are worried too few foreigners are learning Chinese.

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…

“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.

I guess I have a bit of background in this —- my mother runs her own Chinese school and I have been a veteran of several Chinese programs both domestically and abroad. From my view, the majority of people who learn Chinese are mostly interested in doing business in China or perceive the political and economic importance of China. In the minority are those actually fascinated enough by the culture to seek out classes. Chinese is the only major language left that does not rely on an alphabet system. This, coupled with its reputation as a difficult language, greatly deter many interested in studying it.

Cultural differences greatly enhance the problem; because there is still a dearth of Chinese teachers in America, many American schools and organizations have had to import teachers and professors from China. My old high school’s Chinese program had a visiting teacher from China who had no experience teaching Chinese at all; he taught English in his native country. Just because you speak the language doesn’t mean you can teach it.

With these imports also come Chinese teaching techniques that often don’t fly over well with American students. The teaching style in China is more lecture-based, fast-paced, and strict — it can be very dry and dull for the unaccustomed. Chinese is still a new foreign language to English-speakers and teaching techniques have not caught up to demand yet.

This problem is prevalent in China as well, where many English programs have minimal qualifications for English teachers and give little, if any, training. From what I’ve seen, to become an English teacher in China you have to be white and have a college degree. When I applied for a teaching post in China, they rejected me because my Chinese was too good. They did however, take the French guy. He was white.

China’s problem with not being able to attract as many foreign Chinese learners as they would like brings up China’s lack of soft power and global political image. But that’s for another time.

(Flickr photo credit: peiqianlong)

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About Yan

Born in the Middle Kingdom and grew up in the Emerald City. Currently a student at one of those overrated and annoying East Coast colleges that I absolutely hate (Dartmouth) but can't transfer out of because it's too late. Feel free to stalk. twitter
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