Date of this Version
2012 March 20 in The China Beat http://www.thechinabeat.org/
Outside of China, people are agape at the prospect of learning to write Chinese: “So hard! Too hard.” Back in Australia, I know first generation migrants who speak Chinese at home but have never learnt to write; they gape along with everyone else. But for all the jaw-dropping, these people can read and write the national language of their home (for the Aussie-Chinese, that’s English). What about the people inside China for whom ‘Chinese’ is a foreign language? They are a significant minority, and, on the Chinese scale, a minority still means millions of people. ‘Chinese’ is usually loosely used when we should say ‘Mandarin’, which is just one of more than 50 distinct languages of the different ethnic groups in China. Mandarin is based on the language of Beijing, has official status, and is the language of the dominant ethnicity, the Han. But it’s by no means the first language of the rural poor in China’s vast and less-developed western and southern provinces. For many of these people, writing Mandarin characters is just as daunting as it is for us, as many of these other Chinese languages are not written in characters, or not written at all.