"Chinese light"

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In the comments to "The ethnopolitics of National Language in China" (7/2/18), "Uyghur basketball player" (6/24/18), and other posts, there has been a vigorous debate on the relationship between national language on the one hand and local and "minority" / ethnic languages on the other hand.

In the course of the debate, many interesting political, linguistic, and cultural issues have been raised, but in the last paragraph of his latest comment, Bathrobe said something that really caught my attention:

One big problem in China is the nature of the written language. Memorising Chinese characters places an extreme burden on students and requires total dedication. Add to that the emphasis in the Chinese school system on acquiring a polished literary style (which can be easily seen from Chinese-language textbooks for primary-school students), as well as the emphasis on the ability to quote old aphorisms and literary allusions, and I would suggest that Chinese-language education might even have a 'crowding-out' effect on students' ability to learn other languages.

In a separate communication, Bathrobe explained further:

With English it's possible to write passable English without being too heavily committed to thousands of years of culture. With Chinese, the language and culture are like a religion. Literacy demands a high level of commitment. It's harder to get away with "Chinese light".

These are remarkable insights, the likes of which I have not hitherto encountered.  On the other hand, they prompt me to raise the possibility that intense learning of another language on the part of young students may have an adverse impact on their ability to master Chinese well.  I will speak from personal experience and observation.

During the last ten to twenty years, I have witnessed an amazing improvement in the English language skills of the many Chinese students I encounter.  Quite a few of them are currently achieving phenomenal levels of English ability at ever younger ages.  Fifteen or twenty years ago, I met large groups of Chinese school children (mostly teenagers) who were travelling to America to spend a month or so in an English language environment, and they were able to converse rather freely on a variety of topics.  Less than a week ago, as I was waiting in the Los Angeles airport for my flight to Singapore, I met a group of about thirty very small children from Shanghai escorted by two teachers.  They were on their way to attend language camp in America.  Though they were only around seven or eight years old, their English conversational skills were truly amazing.

This pronounced rise in the English skills of Chinese students at ever younger ages is the result of deliberate choices in language training.  Chinese school children begin the study of English in primary school and continue it all the way to graduation from high school.  Parents who can afford it have been sending their children to America for college, and now high school and sometimes even middle school.  The downside is that I have observed a corresponding decrease in Chinese language skills on the part of those students who have made the greatest commitment to mastering English.  It is extremely rare to encounter a student who has extremely good English reading, writing, and speaking ability, while at the same time being able maintain high levels of reading, writing, and speaking in Chinese.

Here in Singapore, almost everybody has respectable English language ability.  How is this so?  The example of the taxi driver who took me from Changi Airport to my hotel is instructive.  He himself is a native speaker of Hokkien, his wife is a Teochew speaker, and the government would like his children to speak Mandarin.  Yet the taxi driver insists that the whole family speak English at home.  I asked him why, and he replied straightforwardly that it would pay off in the future with better jobs and a better life for his children.  The parents in China who push their children to learn English are making the same calculation.



20 Comments »

  1. Thaomas said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 5:05 pm

    Does Mair suggest (it seems he does) that English and other foreign languages interferes with leaning Chinese more that it does other languages? Because of the writing system?

  2. Jenny Chu said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 7:42 pm

    I have worked in Hong Kong in the area of public relations for almost 20 years. It is a profession where excellent writing skills are a must. My experience is that it is vanishingly rare to find someone whose Chinese and English writing skills are both at a high level. The Singaporeans are the worst of the lot – they can speak Singlish very well, but can write at a high level in neither Chinese nor English.

  3. Alex said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 9:41 pm

    About a year ago I wrote a letter that was published here.

    I am making BIG BET for my children as well. They go to public school here so they can learn Chinese and have a Chinese environment. However I don't insist they know how to hand write all the characters. They learn the ones that are simple and those they can remember some what naturally via reading a lot.

    So my older one endures intense mockery for lower test scores from students as they don't accept pinyin if he uses that for words he cant write. I endure ceaseless lectures from some teachers and in laws for not turning in homework (copy full pages of Chinese characters from the text.) I figure its better that he uses pinyin and writes what he meant to write instead of changing the sentence to what he can hand write like many other students.

    That said his reading ability is far beyond those in his grade (5 soon 6) and he skipped a grade. Instead of doing those mindless write 30 times etc or even rewrite entire pages by hand homework they assign, he reads. With the time he saves he sleeps at least 10 hours a day, swims, plays tennis, guitar, programs, and most importantly spends time with his younger brother. He will pick up latin and spanish soon.

    Perhaps this will save him from Jenny Chu's use of "Singaporean"

    I think changing the tests from seeing the character and writing the pinyin would be a huge step in the right direction. It would help retain more of the culture.

  4. Alex said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 9:43 pm

    *meant changing the tests from tingxie or seeing the pinyin and writing the character to seeing the character and writing the pinyin.

  5. fish said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 9:59 pm

    "they can speak Singlish very well, but can write at a high level in neither Chinese nor English."

    Does one's writing in standard English get influenced by using Singlish as native dialect? I thought Singaporeans would be able to write fluently in Standard (presumably British-based) English from school. Are there non-standard "mistakes" in writing standard English from Singlish grammar, for instead.

    Do other English-based creole native speakers, like Jamaican creole speakers who aren't speakers of Standard English, but who grew up with school-taught English writing also have the problem of their writing not being the same as standard (again, probably a British-based) English.

  6. Alex said,

    July 13, 2018 @ 12:07 am

    The students in my area received their exam results today. Nanshan Shenzhen.

    A conversation in elevator of mother and another party concerning her daughters final grade for Chinese. She received a 86 and the average for class was 85.

    the translation: Every year her Chinese grade is lower. I don't know what to do anymore. She hates Chinese and isnt renzhen / earnest with her tutor. Its amazing how many children need tutors for their native language just to get a B.

  7. Alex said,

    July 13, 2018 @ 12:08 am

    "Every year her Chinese grade is lower. I don't know what to do anymore. She hates Chinese and isnt renzhen / earnest with her tutor. "

    that is what the lady said.

    "Its amazing how many children need tutors for their native language just to get a B." This is my thoughts

  8. Len said,

    July 13, 2018 @ 2:15 am

    The ambiguity of "Chinese light" (I thought the post might be about some obscure cultural concept, with "light" as a noun) could be avoided by the spelling "Chinese lite" or "Chinese-lite".

  9. Tom M said,

    July 13, 2018 @ 2:39 am

    @Joanna Chu writes: "My experience is that it is vanishingly rare to find someone whose Chinese and English writing skills are both at a high level. The Singaporeans are the worst of the lot – they can speak Singlish very well, but can write at a high level in neither Chinese nor English."

    This matches my experience. Every time I see a Hong Kong job ad requiring "outstanding writing skills in English and Chinese" or similar, it strikes me that they're asking the impossible. Fortunately, all the applicant usually requires is high-level ability in whatever language the hiring decision-maker speaks natively and to be convincingly better than them at the other. A much more attainable benchmark.

  10. Tom M said,

    July 13, 2018 @ 2:41 am

    My apologies. I mean Jenny Chu, of course, above.

  11. Bathrobe said,

    July 13, 2018 @ 2:57 am

    Ha! "Chinese-lite" is the term I was looking for!

  12. KevinM said,

    July 13, 2018 @ 1:31 pm

    @Bathrobe. Just proves your point. Fluency in Chinese requires total immersion in thousands of years of culture. Fluency in English requires exposure to beer commercials.

  13. kltpzyxm said,

    July 14, 2018 @ 4:44 pm

    It seems to me that how much language ability you do or don't retain is just a matter of ROI on the time spent learning the language(s). I'm willing to bet that Chinese kids still retain their native speaker fluency even if they do drop the amount of time they spend on learning how to read & write Chinese because of increasing the time they spend learning English.

  14. B.Ma said,

    July 15, 2018 @ 12:29 am

    @Tom M, "A much more attainable benchmark."

    Very true!

    @fish,

    I can't think of specific examples off-hand, but Singaporeans can have certain hallmarks in their English writing. A monolingual American or Brit not exposed to these before would not identify these as grammatically wrong. The same is true for Hong Kong English writers. I have also advised some Scandinavian and Spanish friends/colleagues on how to reorder/rephrase certain expressions in their English writing to make it seem more natural, and it was obvious that these stemmed from their first languages. I will try to find some examples before the next relevant Victor Mair post.

    @Alex,

    Grades may not mean anything depending on how they are calculated. Anyway when I was at school, the majority of white kids (who spoke only English) got Cs and Ds for English while most of the "foreign" kids (for whom English could be their first, second or even third language) got As and Bs. And my school awarded criteria-based grades, so it wasn't just the top 20% getting A then the next 20% getting B and so on.

  15. David Marjanović said,

    July 15, 2018 @ 6:31 am

    Does Mair suggest (it seems he does) that English and other foreign languages interferes with leaning Chinese more that it does other languages? Because of the writing system?

    Because of 1) the writing system, which is so time-consuming to learn, and 2) the emphasis on writing in a literary style, which is much weaker in English (though, for instance, stronger in French than in English), and 3) the fact that such a literary style requires passive and active familiarity with some 2500 years of literature and the proverbs & idioms derived from it or alluding to the same events.

    3) isn't absent from English – "Gordian knot" refers to an event that supposedly took place over 2300 years ago –, but I'm sure this is taken farther in Chinese than anywhere else by a large margin.

  16. mg said,

    July 17, 2018 @ 2:27 pm

    I wonder if the decline in Chinese proficiency is less due to it being difficult to be proficient in two languages with different writing systems (because I don't see that problem in non-dyslexic students learning both Hebrew and English), and more due to them contrasting the difficulty of the two and deciding "this is ridiculous!" about what's expected of them in Chinese. Seeing how much easier English is makes it clear that literacy in a language just doesn't have to be that hard.

    It's clear that if the give the same amount of effort to both languages, their English reading and writing will be much better and more fluent than their Chinese. I know that when I was a kid, that would have affected my willingness to work my tail off in a language where there was no way I'd reach the ease of reading and writing that I had in languages using an alphabet.

    @David Marjanović – you wrote "3) isn't absent from English – "Gordian knot" refers to an event that supposedly took place over 2300 years ago." That's different, because the term is also used in modern speech. What's expected for Chinese is more similar to being expected to read untranslated phrases from the original Beowolf or Canterbury tales in order to pass high school English.

  17. Meichun Liu said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 12:09 am

    Chinese writing may be difficult, but to a Chinese, it is the literary and cultural binding that enables us to be connected with the ancient Chinese history and civilization we are so proud of!

  18. mg said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 12:24 am

    @Meichun Liu – I understand what you're saying, but I don't think most kids think that way. What they see is that after a few years of English instruction, they can read and enjoy a story that they couldn't read in Chinese.

    Serious question – can an average 8 year old read for pleasure in Chinese? Books or magazines for kids their age? In English, 3rd grade is where kids are expected to transition from "learning to read" to "reading to learn" – would that be true in Chinese?

  19. Bathrobe said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 1:19 am

    @ Meichun Liu

    The context of my original thought was language maintenance among minority ethnic groups in China. Since "the literary and cultural binding that enables us to be connected with the ancient Chinese history and civilization" poses a heavy burden on students, is it possible for, say, Tibetan students to become adept in both written Chinese and written Tibetan? After all, Tibetans have their own ancient history and culture that is in at many points separate from your Chinese history and civilisation.

    I suspect that if Chinese were as (relatively-speaking) easy as Indonesian, Tibetans could master both ancient Chinese culture and civilisation and their own ancient culture without too much trouble. But since Chinese makes heavy demands on students, and is so culturally focussed, it might be difficult to become proficient in both, except for a certain number of enthusiasts.

    I know that Inner Mongolians who go to Chinese-stream schools can write only Chinese. Inner Mongolians who go to Mongolian-stream schools can write beautiful Mongolian script and can also write Chinese characters (because they learn Chinese as a subject) — but all too often their Chinese characters are ugly and childish. How much time do you need to spend to become adept in both? And is it worth it? When push comes to shove, the 'national language' will win out, for obvious reasons.

    Perhaps it is fine for those who are mainstream Chinese to be totally devoted to their ancient history and civilisation. But where does that leave people who just want to be functional in the language?

  20. Eidolon said,

    July 19, 2018 @ 7:19 pm

    > "The Singaporeans are the worst of the lot – they can speak Singlish very well, but can write at a high level in neither Chinese nor English."

    Is it possible to define "high level," here? On average, are Singaporeans functionally literate in both languages, or just one, or neither? Can they functionally communicate in these languages outside of writing?

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