Chinese as a foreign language
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Chinese as a foreign or second language is the study of the Chinese varieties by non-native speakers. Increased interest in China from those outside has led to a corresponding interest in the study of Standard Chinese ("Mandarin") as a foreign language, the official language of mainland China and Taiwan. However, the teaching of Chinese both within and outside China is not a recent phenomenon. Westerners began learning different Chinese varieties in the 16th century. Within China, Mandarin became the official language in the early 20th century. Mandarin also became the official language of Taiwan when the Kuomintang took over control from Japan after World War II.
In 2010, 750,000 people (670,000 from overseas) took the Chinese Proficiency Test. For comparison, in 2005, 117,660 non-native speakers took the test, an increase of 26.52% from 2004. From 2000 to 2004, the number of students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland taking Advanced Level exams in Chinese increased by 57%. An independent school in the UK made Chinese one of their compulsory subjects for study in 2006. The study of Chinese is also rising in the United States. The USC U.S.-China Institute cited a report that 51,582 students were studying the language in US colleges and universities. While far behind the more than 800,000 students who study Spanish, the number is more than three times higher than in 1986. The Institute's report includes graphs and details on the popularity of other languages.
China has helped 60,000 teachers promote its language internationally, and an estimated 40 million people were studying Chinese as a second language around the world at the end of 2008.
Other than Standard Mandarin, Cantonese is the only other variant of Chinese that is widely taught as a foreign language. It is the official language of Hong Kong and Macau and has traditionally been the dominant language among most Overseas Chinese communities. A number of universities outside Hong Kong and Macau offer Cantonese within their Chinese-language departments as well, especially in the UK and North America.
The interpretation of the Chinese language in the West began with some misunderstandings. Since the earliest appearance of Chinese characters in the West, the belief that written Chinese was ideographic prevailed. Such a belief led to Athanasius Kircher's conjecture that Chinese characters were derived from the Egyptian hieroglyphs, China being a colony of Egypt. John Webb, the British architect, went a step further. In a Biblical vein similar to Kircher's, he tried to demonstrate that Chinese was the Primitive or Adamic language. In his An Historical Essay Endeavoring a Probability That the Language of the Empire of China Is the Primitive Language (1669), he suggested that Chinese was the language spoken before the confusion of tongues.
Leibniz placed high hopes on the Chinese characters:
I thought that someday, perhaps one could accommodate these characters, if one were well informed of them, not just for representing the characters as they are ordinarily made, but both for calculating and aiding imagination and meditation in a way that would amazingly strike the spirit of these people and would give us a new means of teaching and mastering them.
The serious study of the language in the West began with missionaries coming to China during the late 16th century. Among the first were the Italian Jesuits, Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci. They mastered the language without the aid of any grammar books or dictionaries, and are often viewed as the first Western sinologists. Ruggeiri set up a school in Macau, which was the first for teaching foreigners Chinese and translated part of the Great Learning into Latin. This was the first translation of a Confucian classic into any European language. He also wrote a religious tract in Chinese, the first Chinese book written by a Westerner. Matteo Ricci brought Western sciences to China, and became a prolific Chinese writer. With his wide command of the language, Ricci impressed the Chinese literati and was accepted as one of them, much to the advantage of his missionary work. Several scientific works he authored or co-authored were collected in the Siku Quanshu, the imperial collection of Chinese classics. Some of his religious works were listed in the collection's bibliography, but not collected.
Ricci and Ruggieri, with the help of the Chinese Jesuit Lay Brother Sebastiano Fernandez (also spelled Fernandes; 1562–1621), are thought to have created the first Portuguese-Chinese dictionary some time between 1583 and 1588. Later, while travelling on the Grand Canal of China from Beijing to Linqing during the winter of 1598, Ricci, with the help of Lazzaro Cattaneo (1560–1640) and Sebastiano Fernandez, also compiled a Chinese-Portuguese dictionary. In this latter work, thanks to Cattaneo's musical ear, a system was introduced for marking the tones of romanized Chinese syllables with diacritical marks. The distinction between aspirated and unaspirated consonants was also made clear through the use of apostrophes, as in the much later Wade-Giles system. Although neither of the two dictionaries were published—the former only came to light in the Vatican Secret Archives in 1934, and saw publication in 2001, while the later has not been found so far—Ricci made the transcription system developed in 1598, and in 1626 it was finally published, with minor modifications, by another Jesuit Nicolas Trigault in a guide for new Jesuit missionaries. The system continued to be in wide use throughout the 17th and 18th century. It can be seen in several Romanized Chinese texts (prepared mostly by Michael Boym and his Chinese collaborators) that appeared in Athanasius Kircher's China Illustrata. 
The earliest Chinese grammars were produced by the Spanish Dominican missionaries. The earliest surviving one is by Francisco Varo (1627–1687). His Arte de la Lengua Mandarina was published in Canton in 1703. This grammar was only sketchy, however. The first important Chinese grammar was Joseph Henri Marie de Prémare's Notitia linguae sinicae, completed in 1729 but only published in Malacca in 1831. Other important grammar texts followed, from Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat's Élémens (sic) de la grammaire chinoise in 1822 to Georg von der Gabelentz's Chinesische Grammatik in 1881. Glossaries for Chinese circulated among the missionaries from early on. Robert Morrison's A Dictionary of the Chinese Language, noted for its fine printing, is one of the first important Chinese dictionaries for the use of Westerners.
Due to the status of Guangzhou as the only Chinese port open to foreign trade and exchange in the 1700s, Cantonese became the variety of Chinese that came into the most interaction with the Western world in early modern times. Foreign works on Chinese were largely centered around this variant until the opening up of other Chinese regions for commerce through unequal treaties, which exposed European scholars to a much larger number of Chinese varieties.
In 1814, a chair of Chinese and Manchu was founded at the Collège de France, and Abel-Rémusat became the first Professor of Chinese in Europe. In 1837, Nikita Bichurin opened the first European Chinese-language school in the Russian Empire. Since then sinology became an academic discipline in the West, with the secular sinologists outnumbering the missionary ones. Some of the big names in the history of linguistics took up the study of Chinese. Sir William Jones dabbled in it; instigated by Abel-Rémusat, Wilhelm von Humboldt studied the language seriously, and discussed it in several letters with the French professor.
Local Chinese variants were still widely used up until a Qing dynasty decree in 1909 that mandated Mandarin as the official language of China. After this period, only Cantonese and Mandarin remained as the most influential variants of Chinese, the former due to the importance of maritime trade in Guangzhou and the emergence of Hong Kong as a key economy in East Asia. Chinese departments in the West were largely centered on Cantonese due to British colonial rule over Hong Kong until the opening of communist-ruled China starting in the 1970s.
The teaching of Chinese as a foreign language in the People's Republic of China started in 1950 at Tsinghua University, initially serving students from Eastern Europe. Starting with Bulgaria in 1952, China also dispatched Chinese teachers abroad, and by the early 1960s had sent teachers afar as the Congo, Cambodia, Yemen and France. In 1962, with the approval of the State Council, the Higher Preparatory School for Foreign Students was set up, later renamed to the Beijing Language and Culture University. The programs were disrupted for several years during the Cultural Revolution.
According to the Chinese Ministry of Education, there are 330 institutions teaching Mandarin Chinese as a foreign language, receiving about 40,000 foreign students. In addition, there are almost 5,000 Chinese language teachers. Since 1992 the State Education Commission has managed a Chinese language proficiency exam program, which tests has been taken around 100 million times (including by domestic ethnic minority candidates).
Within China's Guangdong Province, Cantonese is also offered in some schools as optional or extra-curricular courses in select Chinese as a foreign language programs, although many require students to be proficient in the Mandarin first.
Chinese is rated as one of the most difficult languages to learn for people whose native language is English, together with Arabic, Japanese and Korean. According to the Foreign Service Institute, a native English speaker needs over 2,200 hours of study of intensive study, taking 88 weeks (one year and about 8 months), to learn Mandarin. A quote attributed to William Milne, Morrison's colleague, goes that learning Chinese is
Several major difficulties stand out:
While English uses an alphabet, Chinese uses hanzi, or Chinese characters, as its writing system. The Kangxi dictionary contains 47,035 characters (simplified Chinese: 汉字; traditional Chinese: 漢字; pinyin: Hànzì). However, most of the characters contained there are archaic and obscure. The Chart of Common Characters of Modern Chinese (simplified Chinese: 现代汉语常用字表; traditional Chinese: 現代漢語常用字表; pinyin: Xiàndài Hànyǚ Chángyòng Zì Biǎo), promulgated in People's Republic of China, lists 2,500 common characters and 1,000 less-than-common characters, while the Chart of Generally Utilized Characters of Modern Chinese (simplified Chinese: 现代汉语通用字表; traditional Chinese: 現代漢語通用字表; pinyin: Xiàndài Hànyǚ Tōngyòng Zì Biǎo) lists 7,000 characters, including the 3,500 characters already listed above.
In his 1991 article "Why Chinese is So Damn Hard," David Moser states that an English speaker would find the "ridiculous" writing system "unreasonably hard to learn" to the level of achieving literacy due to the large number of characters. Moser argued that he was unable to "comfortably read" a newspaper even though he knew 2,000 characters.
The 17th-century Protestant theologian Elias Grebniz, said that Chinese characters were:
In Gautier's novella Fortunio, a Chinese professor from the Collège de France, when asked by the protagonist to translate a love letter suspected to be written in Chinese, replied that the characters in the letter happen to all belong to that half of the 40,000 characters which he has yet to master.
Mandarin Chinese has four tones (simplified Chinese: 声调; traditional Chinese: 聲調; pinyin: shēngdiào), namely the first tone (flat or high level tone, 阴平, denoted by " ¯ " in Pinyin), the second tone (rising or high-rising tone, 阳平, denoted by " ˊ " in Pinyin), the third tone (falling-rising or low tone, 上声, denoted by " ˇ " in Pinyin), and the fourth tone (falling or high-falling tone, 去声, denoted by " ˋ " in Pinyin). There is also a fifth tone called neutral (轻声，denoted as no-mark in Pinyin) although the official name of the tones is Four Tones. Many other Chinese dialects have more, for example, Cantonese has six (often numbered as nine, but three are duplicates). In most Western languages, tones are only used to express emphasis or emotion, not to distinguish meanings as in Chinese. A French Jesuit, in a letter, relates how the Chinese tones cause a problem for understanding:
I will give you an example of their words. They told me chou [shu in modern Pinyin] signifies a book: so that I thought whenever the word chou was pronounced, a book was the subject. Not at all! Chou, the next time I heard it, I found signified a tree. Now I was to recollect, chou was a book, or a tree. But this amounted to nothing; chou, I found, expressed also great heats; chou is to relate; chou is the Aurora; chou means to be accustomed; chou expresses the loss of a wager, &c. I should not finish, were I to attempt to give you all its significations.
Moser also stated that tones were a contributing factor to the difficulty of learning Chinese, partly because it is difficult for non-native learners to know how to convey emotion using intonation whilst retaining the correct tones.
Sources of education
Chinese courses have been blooming internationally since 2000 at every level of education. Still, in most of the Western universities, the study of the Chinese language is only a part of Chinese Studies or sinology, instead of an independent discipline. The teaching of Chinese as a foreign language is known as duiwai hanyu jiaoxue (simplified Chinese: 对外汉语教学; traditional Chinese: 對外漢語教學; pinyin: Duìwài Hànyǔ Jiàoxué). The Confucius Institute, supervised by Hanban (the National Office For Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language), promotes the Chinese language in the West and other parts of the world.
The People's Republic of China began to accept foreign students from the communist countries (in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa) from the 1950s onwards. Foreign students were forced to leave the PRC during the Cultural Revolution. Taiwan has long been a place for students to study Mandarin. Popular choices for Westerners who want to study Chinese abroad include the Beijing Language and Culture University in Beijing, the Mandarin Training Center (MTC) and International Chinese Language Program (ICLP, formerly the Stanford Center) in Taiwan, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Many online courses in Standard Chinese, Cantonese and some other dialects are available through commercial, governmental and nonprofit web sites catering to speakers of English and over a hundred other languages. Free and Paid-for courses are also offered via podcasts. Software is also available to help students pronounce, read and translate Chinese into English and other languages. Live it China is gaining traction as a place to find language partners for users in Hong Kong. Language Partners are becoming more and more useful for students as access to Chinese speakers is becoming more prevalent.
Notable non-native speakers of Chinese
- Viktor Axelsen: Danish national badminton player
- Pearl S. Buck: American novelist, author of The Good Earth, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
- Cường Để: Vietnamese prince
- Kenji Doihara: Japanese general and World War II war criminal
- Ai Fukuhara: Japanese national table-tennis player
- Ronald Graham: American mathematician
- Ho Chi Minh: Vietnamese revolutionary
- John Rabe: German businessman, saved thousands of Chinese people from slaughter during the Nanking massacre.
- Sidney Rittenberg: American interpreter, Communist and businessman
- Sagnik Roy: Indian businessman
- Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn: Thai crown princess
- Sidney Shapiro: American translator; acquired Chinese citizenship.
- Gary Snyder: American poet and essayist. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
- Richard Sorge: Soviet spy
- George Thomas Staunton: English traveller, Orientalist and translator
- James Veneris: American Korean War veteran; settled in Shandong province after the war
- Ruth Weiss: Austrian-born Chinese-naturalized journalist
- Bob Woodruff: American television journalist, ABC News
- James Kynge: British, a regular commentator on Chinese and Asian issues.
- Mark Zuckerberg: creator of Facebook
Politicians and government servants
- Timothy Geithner: United States Secretary of the Treasury
- Herbert Hoover: former American President
- Jon Huntsman, Jr.: US Ambassador to China; former Governor of Utah.
- Banri Kaieda: Japanese politician and leader of the DPJ
- Karim Massimov: Kazakh Prime Minister
- Kim Il-sung: North Korean leader
- Park Geun-hye: South Korean President
- Kevin Rudd: former Prime Minister of Australia
- Elsie Tu: British-born Hong Kong politician
- Lee Kuan Yew: Former Prime Minister of Singapore
- Lee Hsien Loong: Prime Minister of Singapore
Educators, historians and linguists
- Frederick W. Baller: British missionary, linguist, translator, educator and sinologist
- John DeFrancis: American linguist
- Arif Dirlik: Turkish historian
- Wolfram Eberhard: German sociologist
- Bernhard Karlgren: Swedish sinologist
- George Kennedy: American sinologist and developer of Yale romanization
- Joseph Needham: English sinologist
- Stephen Owen: American sinologist and literary analyst
- Phan Bội Châu: Vietnamese scholar and nationalist
- Vikram Seth: Indian academic
- Ezra Vogel: American academic
- Samuel Wells Williams: American missionary, linguist, and diplomat
- Francis Galicia: Filipino linguist, philanthropist
- L. Nelson Bell: American Missionary father-in-law of Billy Graham
- John Birch: American missionary and namesake of the John Birch Society
- Walter Henry Medhurst British missionary and translator
- Timothy Richard: American Baptist missionary
- Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky: Russian-born Bishop of Shanghai
- Hudson Taylor: British missionary and founder of the China Inland Mission
Actors, entertainers and cultural performers
- Shila Amzah: International multi-award winning Malaysian singer-songwriter
- Jessica Beinecke: American entertainer and host of online show OMG Meiyu
- Vanessa Branch: English American actress
- John Cena: American professional wrestler
- Dashan: Canadian stage performer famous in China
- William Hootkins: American actor
- Im Jin-ah: South Korean singer and actress
- Jeff Locker: American television host active in Taiwan
- Michiko Nishiwaki: Japanese actress
- Paul Robeson: American singer, actor and activist
- Mira Sorvino: American actress
- Abigail Washburn: American musician; singer, banjo player; performs in China and in the US
- Leehom Wang: American-born singer
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- There are disputes over which is the earliest European book containing Chinese characters. One of the candidates is Juan González de Mendoza's Historia de las cosas más notables, ritos y costumbres del gran reyno de la China published in 1586.
- Cf. John DeFrancis, "The Ideographic Myth". For a sophisticated exposition of the problem, see J. Marshall Unger, Ideogram, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004.
- Cf. David E. Mungello, Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology, Stuttgart: F. Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden, 1985, pp. 143-157; Haun Saussy, Great Walls of Discourse and Other Adventures in Cultural China, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001, pp. 49-55.
- Cf. Christoph Harbsmeier, "John Webb and the Early History of the Study of the Classical Chinese Language in the West", in Ming Wilson & John Cayley (ed.s), Europe Studies China: Papers from an International Conference on the History of European Sinology, London: Han-Shan Tang Books, 1995, pp. 297-338.
- Cf. Umberto Eco, "From Marco Polo to Leibniz: Stories of Intercultural Misunderstanding". Eco devoted a whole monograph to this topic in his The Search for the Perfect Language, trans. James Fentress, Oxford, UK; Cambridge, Mass., US: Blackwell, 1995.
- The Advancement of Learning, XVI, 2.
- "J'ai pensé qu'on pourrait peut-être accommoder un jour ces caractères, si on en était bien informé, non pas seulement à représenter comme font ordinairement les caractères, mais même à cal-culer et à aider l'imagination et la méditation d'une manière qui frapperait d'étonnement l'ésprit de ces peuples et nous donnerait un nouveau moyen de les instruire et gagner." - Lettre au T.R.P. Verjus, Hanovre, fin de l'année 1698 (from Wikisource) Cf. Franklin Perkins, Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
- "Dicionário Português-Chinês : 葡汉辞典 (Pu-Han cidian): Portuguese-Chinese dictionary", by Michele Ruggieri, Matteo Ricci; edited by John W. Witek. Published 2001, Biblioteca Nacional. ISBN 972-565-298-3. Partial preview available on Google Books. Pages 184-185, 196-197.
- Other researchers suggest that the dictionary was created during 1580-88 by a larger team of Chinese and European collaborators, still "co-ordinated" by Ricci and Ruggieri: Luís Filipe Barreto (2002), "RESEÑA DE "DICIONÁRIO PORTUGUÊS-CHINÊS" DE JOHN W. WITEK (ED.)" (PDF), Bulletin of Portuguese /Japanese Studies, december, Lisbon: Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 5: 117–126
- (French) Ruggieri's biography at the Ricci 21st Century Roundtable database.
- Mungello, David E. (1989). Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 167–171. ISBN 0-8248-1219-0. The transcription of the Nestorian Stele can be found in pp. 13-28 of China Illustrata, which is available online on Google Books. The same book also has a catechism in Romanized Chinese, using apparently the same transcription with tone marks (pp. 121-127)
- For more about the man and his grammar, see Matthew Y Chen, "Unsung Trailblazers of China-West Cultural Encounter". Varo's grammar has been translated from Spanish into English, as Francisco Varo's Grammar of the Mandarin Language, 1703 (2000).
- Li (2006), p. 126.
- Cf. Fan Cunzhong (范存忠), "Sir William Jones's Chinese Studies", in Review of English Studies, Vol. 22, No. 88 (Oct., 1946), pp. 304–314, reprinted in Adrian Hsia (ed.), The Vision of China in the English Literature of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1998.
- Cf. Jean Rousseau & Denis Thouard (éd.s), Lettres édifiantes et curieuses sur la langue chinoise, Villeneuve-d’Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 1999.
- Yue-Hashimoto (1972), p. 70.
- Chinese Language Programme, South China University of Technology
- Chinese Language non-degree program, South China Normal University
- According to a study by the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California in the 1970s, quoted on William Baxter's site.
- "Language Difficulty Ranks".
- Quoted in "The Process of Translation: The translation experience" on Wycliffe's site.
- Moser, David (1991) “Why Chinese is So Damn Hard" (Archive). In: Mair, Victor H. (ed.), Schriftfestschrift : Essays on Writing and Language in Honor of John DeFrancis on his Eightieth Birthday. Sino-Platonic Papers No. 27 (Archive) (University of Pennsylvania). August 31, 1991. p. 59-70 (PDF document 71-82/260).
- "durch Gottes Verhängniss von Teuffel eingeführet/ damit er die elende Leute in der Finsterniss der Abgötterei destomehr verstricket halte" - Quoted in Harbsmeier, op. cit., p. 300
- "Sans doute les idées contenues dans cette lettre sont exprimées avec des signes que je n'ai pas encore appris et qui appartiennent aux vingt derniers mille" (Chapitre premier). Cf. Qian Zhongshu, "China in the English Literature of the Eighteenth Century", in Quarterly Bulltein of Chinese Bibliography, II (1941): 7-48; 113-152, reprinted in Adrian Hsia (ed.), op. cit., pp. 117-213.
- Shu is equivalent to chou in French as ch and ou corresponds to sh and u, respectively.
- Translated by Isaac D'Israeli, in his Curiosities of Literature. The original letter, in French, can be found in Lettres édifiantes et curieuses de Chine par des missionnaires jésuites (1702–1776), Paris: Garnier-flammarion, 1979, pp. 468–470. chou is written shu in modern pinyin. The words he refers here are: 書, 樹, 暑, 述, 曙, 熟 and 輸, all of which have the same vowel and consonant but different tones in Mandarin.
- Cf. "With a Changing World Comes An Urgency to Learn Chinese", Washington Post, August 26, 2006, about the teaching of Chinese in the US.
- Cf. Lü Bisong (呂必松), Duiwai Hanyu jiaoxue fazhan gaiyao (对外汉语敎学发展槪要 "A sketch of the development of teaching Chinese as a foreign language"), Beijing: Beijing yuyanxueyuan chubanshe, 1990.
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