“Well it’s the thing to be learning, isn’t it?”
“They say it’s the language of times!”
“It’s supposed to be the future!”
Any of these responses will be familiar to someone studying Mandarin Chinese. Eyes widen in surprise, eyebrows flickering skywards, and you are congratulated for making such a bold and yet calculated choice. You are studying Mandarin, one of the hardest and widely-spoken languages in the world, and mother tongue to citizens of one of the fastest developing economies. Your future must be set, people clawing for a chance to see you decode those seemingly incomprehensible symbols. Soon, school children will sing their nursery rhymes in Mandarin, and perhaps you may be scribbling down your shopping list in the form of complex calligraphy. No longer will students struggle over German cases or French noun genders, for Mandarin is the language of the moment!
Despite these glittering exhalations, the praise doesn’t necessarily ring true in reality. The first time this dawned on me, I was filling out a course search-engine to find a single-honours Chinese degree. Surely, I thought, British universities would be spilling over the brim with Chinese courses. However, in 2010, the search engine listed only 8 institutions.
Fortunately, I was extremely lucky to have the opportunity to apply to several excellent universities, including the University of Manchester and the University of Edinburgh. However, I couldn’t afford to constrict my choice by location, campus type, or fees. In some ways, this was a blessing, as I didn’t have to agonise over whether I would rather wander between red-brick walls or UNESCO-protected cloisters, or whether I would prefer to be within one hour or two hours of home. Nevertheless, I felt a little confused. Where were all the Chinese courses?
This morning, I ran a course search through Britain’s higher-education application system, otherwise known as UCAS (search.ucas.com). My search found 16 institutions offering a single-honours undergraduate Chinese course – a considerable improvement on 2010, but still low when compared to the 54 French courses and the 46 Spanish courses running in 2016. All of this browsing on UCAS gave me reminiscent jitters, so I set about trying to decide why the desire to learn Mandarin hasn’t quite transferred into concrete figures.
Firstly, there is the historical context. French has touched the UK’s shores as far back as William the Conqueror’s Norman invasion in 1066, and naturally, proximity to Europe ensured that trade routes were also irrigation channels of languages. In the deep turmoil of the early 20th Century, WWI and WWII meant that languages such as German and Russian became issues of national security and intelligence, later developing into languages of international cooperation and industry. In contrast, Mandarin as it is known today only began to surface after the Chinese Civil War, resulting in the guoyu 国语(‘national language’) as it is named in Taiwan and this blog’s namesake, putong hua 普通话 (‘common language’) on China’s mainland. (More on this can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_Chinese). Following this, China remained an elusive destination for foreigners until Deng Xiaoping’s open door policy (gaige kaifang 改革开放) in 1978. Could it simply be the case that Mandarin needs time to develop on the world stage?
Partly, perhaps. But another important factor in Mandarin usage is the perceived difficulty of the language itself. Far from sharing the odd word with English and other European languages, similarities and recognisable words in Chinese are few and far between. The writing system itself, although making concessions with the phonetic spellings of pinyin, takes time to master. Complete fluency still remains a pipe dream for many learners. Naturally, the trials and tribulations of learning Chinese are emphasised, brushing over glaring positives such as a lack of complex grammar or female tables and male chairs.
With a reputation for difficulty and a still-blooming presence on the world stage, it is unsurprising that many universities, already feeling the python’s grip of austerity cuts, can ill afford to tread new paths in creating Chinese Studies programs and departments. Not to mention, many new scholarly corners are still in the process of being uncovered, such as modern Chinese culture and technology.
However, this is where the future looks bright for Chinese Studies. As more and more people take on board the hearsay of the ‘language of the times’, and start to turn the page on the old stories of China, Chinese Studies continues to expand and take its place in British and worldwide universities. Already, new Chinese degree programs have emerged, as well as Mandarin classes in primary and secondary schools. While the whispered cautions of hours of rote-learning characters and tones still linger, the hope is that more and more opportunities in the field of Chinese Studies will open. Then, perhaps, the ‘language of the future’ will become ‘the language we’re all fairly good at.’