Language in China

This summer marked my 6th year of studying Mandarin Chinese. Mandarin Chinese is, if you count my stint in Hebrew School/Jewish summer camp as language study (my Hebrew skills are limited to praying, cursing, asking for the bathroom, and singing popsicle ad jingles…I could totally easily assimilate into a new life in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv), the 5th language I have studied, and out of all the languages I’ve studied over the years, I’ve found it the most fun and rewarding (though that’s not at all to knock Spanish, Ancient Greek, Latin or Hebrew). I love the economy of Mandarin: the way it doesn’t need too many syllables to communicate big concepts (just look at how poems and inscriptions that are only a few characters long can say so much), the simplicity of its grammar structure, and the way that one syllable or character can have many meanings and interpretations. I love making up puns (intentionally or unintentionally) with Mandarin’s tonal system. I love how the phrase “horse-horse-tiger-tiger” is roughly equivalent to English’s “pretty good”. Basically, I love speaking Mandarin. I especially love it because it enables me to communicate with billions of people…or so I thought.

It’s true that Mandarin Chinese is the world’s most widely spoken language (with English just behind, which is sort of why I’m here, incidentally), since it’s the official language of the world’s most populous country as well as the primary language of other areas in the “Sinosphere”, namely Singapore and Taiwan. But Mandarin Chinese is not the only language spoken in China. Since the early 20th century, the Chinese government has made massive efforts to standardize Chinese and create a language that, no matter where people were in China, everyone could understand, since every region of China has a different accent or dialect, some of which can be mutually unintelligible (plus you have minority languages like Tibetan or Uighur). The Mandarin Chinese that you hear spoken today is based on the Beijing dialect spoken by government officials (“Mandarin” comes from a Portuguese-by-way-of-Sanskrit word for government official). Mandarin Chinese is the language of instruction in schools (and there are of course controversies surrounding this that I’ll address later in this post), the language you hear in national media (if someone on TV is speaking in dialect or with a regional accent, there are often Mandarin subtitles), and the standard written language in Mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore. If you go to school, watch TV, read a newspaper, or live in an urban area, you likely at least understand Mandarin Chinese.

But, as I said before, not everyone in China speaks Mandarin Chinese, or at least they don’t speak the standard Mandarin Chinese/Beijing dialect I learned in school. One of the simplest linguistic differences I’ve encountered is that while I learned to say “ni qu nar?” to ask where someone is going, people in southern China (where I am) tend to say “ni dao nali qu?” or, more specifically in Yunnan Province, “ni kan nadie?” The last one is actually not technically in Mandarin at all; it’s in fangyan, or dialect. Yunnan fangyan can often sound wildly different from Mandarin; even my Chinese co-fellows don’t understand a lot of it (since they’re from provinces outside of Yunnan, and speak their own regional dialects in addition to Mandarin — fun fact: Shanghainese kind of sounds like Japanese). Many of my students speak fangyan as their first language (and sometimes answer questions in fangyan rather than Mandarin, so I don’t understand the answer and can only assume it’s correct), and teachers and school officials will often conduct meetings primarily in fangyan, to the point where, when there was a 7th grade teachers’ meeting I had to attend, the announcement about the meeting specifically asked the teachers to speak Mandarin so I would understand and be able to participate. Thankfully, I am starting to pick up bits of fangyan (for example, I know the words for “where are you going” and “I have to go to the bathroom”), but it’s slow-going.

Now, I mentioned earlier that there are a lot of issues surrounding the fact that standard Mandarin Chinese is the primary (or only) language of instruction in schools. A lot of these issues stem from the fact that while China is very much dominated by the Han Chinese ethnic group, it is also home to 55 ethnic minority groups, many of whom have their own distinctive languages (some of which don’t even belong to the same language family as Mandarin or its regional dialects) and cultures. Yunnan in particular is known for being China’s most ethnically diverse province. Many ethnic groups, especially Tibetan and Uighur people, feel that Mandarin Chinese is displacing their own unique languages, and that their children will lose a piece of their heritage if they only learn to speak Mandarin, and by extension internalize that Mandarin is more “legitimate” than their ethnic group’s own language. I pretty much agree with this viewpoint. I think that while all students should learn to speak Mandarin (it’s the standard language that they have to know to communicate with people outside their particular region, they have to know it to take national tests, et cetera, so it makes practical sense for them to learn it), more should be done to promote, preserve, and celebrate minority languages and regional dialects in China. Sometimes I find it frustrating when my students respond in fangyan when I ask them something in Mandarin, but part of me is glad that in their own way, they’re maintaining a part of their unique culture. I suppose that the closest equivalent to my particular linguistic situation in my classroom would be a Japanese teacher (whose native language is Japanese and speaks English as a second language) in a class of students who primarily speak Spanish/code-switch and mix Spanish and English in a school that primarily or exclusively instructs in English. Should they speak their own language and should their own language be afforded the same dignity and legitimacy as the language(s) of instruction? Yes. Should they also, during school hours at least, try to use the primary language(s) that their teacher understands (in this case, English and Japanese) and learn to use English (in this case) well so that they can communicate effectively with as many people as possible? Yes. It’s a hard balance to strike, and I hope that maybe one day I can study this whole issue more in-depth, and maybe one day find solutions that allow for linguistic diversity while making sure that everyone at least has access to a common means of communication. Wow, that got very academic-babbly very quickly.

It’s really exciting to get to experience China’s linguistic diversity firsthand and see how it affects the way my students learn and how I work. I’ve been struggling for a while with figuring out what I want to do post-TFC, and my experiences here as a language teacher and learner have made me heavily lean towards pursuing a degree in Applied Linguistics, Second Language Studies, or TESOL, so that I can continue to explore and study the ways that people learn and teach languages, and get the skills to help others experience the joy and utility of learning a new language.


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