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Between the Stacks: Sinologist & linguist Edward McDonald

This Thursday, October 20, Sinologist and linguist Edward McDonald will be at The Bookworm to give a talk about his latest book Learning Chinese, Turning Chinese: Challenges to Becoming Sinophone in a Globalised World. McDonald, a Lecturer in Chinese at the University of Auckland, explores links between language and culture, from the classroom to real-life situations.

Here he sits down for a quick Q & A about the most common myths about Chinese and why learning to cook Chinese food can help you master the language.

Mengfei Chen: How many foreigners are learning Chinese in 2011? How much of a difference from 20 years ago?

Edward McDonald: I couldn’t give exact figures, but there’s no doubt Chinese is becoming more popular. In the university context that I’m most familiar with, however, it still takes second place to Japanese. Most universities these days, however, would have Chinese programs, and many high schools, and even some primary schools are offering it, both changes from 20 years ago.

MC: Chinese has a reputation for being an extremely difficult language to learn. How much of that is deserved? Myths?

EM: Difficult for whom? If you’re Japanese or Korean or Vietnamese half of your vocabulary is derived from Chinese – like English and French. Chinese does have some features that are unfamiliar to, say, English speakers, for example, the use of tones, but a lot of the talk about Chinese being “difficult” simply serves to disguise the fact that often it’s very badly taught.

Its relatively unfamiliarity to speakers of European languages means that a lot of its special characteristics – features of the grammar like so-called “resultative verbs”, or the fact that in reading the written form you have to work out for yourself where the word boundaries are – are not systematically taught.

MC: Tell me something interesting that you learned about how Chinese is taught to foreigners. Have there been changes in recent years?

EM: Most Chinese programs these days insist on teaching Chinese characters right from the beginning, along with the pinyin Romanization. This means that when you are learning a new word you have to memorize its a. meaning b. pronunciation c. grammatical use d. Romanization and e. the relevant characters all in one hit – a huge memory burden.

A generation ago many textbooks taught the spoken language solely through Romanization and introduced the written language and characters separately – in my opinion, the field of Chinese teaching has gone backwards in this regard in the last 30 years.

MC: Why do you write that learning Chinese inevitably leads the learner to become, at least partially, Chinese?

EM: After a certain stage, once you’ve mastered the basic sounds and wordings of the language, learning how to use Chinese appropriately means being able to operate in Chinese with Chinese people in ways that they recognize and expect – so in this sense, you have to become (partially) Chinese yourself – perhaps a better way of putting it is that you have to develop a Chinese-speaking identity.

MC: How does language fit into the Chinese governments efforts to boost China’s soft power?

EM: The Hanban (Office of Chinese Teaching International) and the Confucius Institutes it is setting up around the world are clearly intended as an extension of China’s soft power. The thing about soft power, however, is that not only does the home country have to offer it to the rest of the world; the rest of the world needs to be interested in taking it up.

Japan has been doing this very successfully for some decades, and so Japanese pop culture and the Japanese language, both supported by significant government efforts, have proved very attractive to the rest of the world.

China has not reached this stage yet either with its own (pop) culture or the language, and perhaps is proving slow to recognize that it needs to make them something foreigners want to take up for their own purposes, not simply for China’s.

MC: Will Chinese ever be able to challenge English’s dominance as a global language?

EM: People make all sorts of predictions about such things – British academics David Graddol and David Crystal are on record here. I personally don’t like to go in for predictions. But I think it’s safe to say that Chinese won’t become a global language simply because it’s an “important language”, or because it has “five thousand years of culture” behind it – there would have to be much more pragmatic reasons: English became a global language because of the global reach of the British Empire and then the American Empire – is something similar happening in the case of Chinese? I don’t know.

MC: What do you think the impact of the computer (pinyin input) will be on the Chinese language?

EM: There are numbers of other input methods used apart from pinyin, for example, ones that use letter codes for the different strokes of Chinese characters, and I don’t know that pinyin is the most commonly used input method in China itself – there are probably statistics on such things.

It is certainly the case that pinyin is more widely known among Chinese than it was say 20 years ago because of its use as input in text messaging and the like. It is certainly true that the use of input methods of all kinds mean that Chinese people are writing characters much less than they used to, and so are probably getting by with visual recognition of many characters rather than the active ability to write them.

I understand that Internet language uses a lot of classical Chinese, e.g. classical terms that are “lifted” and given a particular meaning on the Internet. And text messaging also uses a significant amount of classical Chinese because it’s much shorter and more concise.

MC:  And finally, do you have any tips for people who are trying to learn Chinese?

EM: Find an opportunity to DO something with people in Chinese – play volleyball, practice tai chi, learn how to cook Chinese food – where you’re not having language lessons as such but the language is part of some other activity – it’s much easier than sitting with a tutor trying to make conversation, and if it’s something you’re genuinely interested in, you’ll have much more motivation to learn.

Learning Chinese, Turning Chinese -a booktalk with sinologist and linguist Edward McDonald, The Bookworm. Thursday, October 20, 2011. 7:30pm. 20/30rmb

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