[Learning Chinese is] a work for men with bodies of brass, lungs of steel, heads of oak, hands of springsteel, hearts of apostles, memories of angels, and lives of Methuselah — missionary William Milne, 1785–1822.
“You know how your parents read you bedtime stories?” My Chinese friend Calvin once said to me. “Well, ours do too, except that those stories are part of our language.”
When the South African government announced last year that Mandarin was to be introduced in South African schools, this was the first thing I thought of: an off-hand comment that drove home for me the difficulty of learning Chinese. Mandarin and Cantonese, I realised then, are not empty vessels for communication; they are the faces of Chinese culture. And just as memorising a face does not constitute understanding a person, so speaking Mandarin requires more than remembering its structure. The language dismantles more naturally into a way of thinking and viewing the world than it does into logical grammatical rules. Everyday dialogue is sewn with idioms, values and cultural references, sometimes referring to obscure episodes in China’s rich history.
Consider the stories behind two common phrases. One refers to a long-ago king called Gou Jian who, for 10 years from BC 492-482 slept every night on brushwood and drank gal (from an animal’s gallbladder) to feed the bitterness he would need to take revenge on someone who had wronged him. “Sleeping on brushwood and tasting gall” means doing whatever it takes — generally a good dollop of self-discipline — to achieve a goal.
Another casual sentence refers to the time when Zhuge Liang, the “Hidden Dragon”, a brilliant strategist who lived during the period of the Three Kingdoms (AD 220-280) was faced with an impossible mission. His superior, Zhou Yu, jealous of Liang’s talent, commanded him to produce 100,000 arrows within three days. Zhuge waited until fog and darkness descended over the river and sent a boat manned by more than 1,000 straw men across to enemy territory. The enemy took the scarecrows for soldiers and rained arrows down upon them. The boat turned around triumphantly, carrying the fresh ammunition straight to Yu. All of this is summarised in just a few characters (???? or “c?ochuánjièjiàn”), and means achieving one’s goal by wisely making use of others’ resources.
Short of entirely immersing oneself in Chinese culture — which some American families are doing — learning references that are not merely dropped in for decoration but are actually part of the language itself is a Herculean task. Boston University’s Modern languages webpage observes, “to be at ease and effective in a Chinese environment learning the language is half the battle, but knowing about the culture behind the language is the other”.
And this is a battle that South Africa, for whom China is the primary trade partner, has elected to fight on local soil. But perhaps we’re trying to run before we can walk. (See what I did there?) Let’s forget about expressions and start with the building blocks. Except that even the building blocks are different. Mandarin doesn’t have an alphabet. It is based on characters that represent words rather than component sounds. There are more than 50,000 Chinese characters in total, although modern dictionaries typically contain about 20,000. Being able to make sense of a newspaper requires knowing about 2000-3000 characters.
In China, characters are typically taught through rote learning — for example, kids will be given essays of increasing complexity to memorise and then write out word for word, thus gradually improving their vocabulary and grasp of sentence structure. In Western schooling systems, which favour learning through experiential enquiry, kids are not used to learning in this way. This is believed to be a key reason that Mandarin programmes in Australian schools have had limited success: school-leavers with 13 years under their belts typically know only 500 characters.
Spoken Chinese is perhaps even more notorious among English pupils because it is tonal. Calvin tries out a few words on me that are distinguished only by tone; I cannot even hear the difference. Cantonese has six tones; Mandarin four; English and Afrikaans none. IsiZulu, isiXhosa and most of the other Bantu languages are also tonal, which means speakers of these tongues might find learning Mandarin slightly easier. In addition, people who can speak two or more languages, as most black South Africans can, generally find it easier to learn another one.
On the other hand, students will probably be learning Mandarin — as well as other subjects — in what is already their second or third language (i.e. English), putting them at a disadvantage. On balance, Mandarin is not going to be an easy elective for South African kids to take, although on balance indigenous language speakers might have a slight overlooked advantage.
According to the Wits Language School website, learning to speak Mandarin takes more than 2,000 hours, as opposed to 600 hours for a Romance language such as Spanish. This estimate is for a native English speaker. (For an English person to learn isiZulu or isiXhosa takes an estimated 1,100 hours, at least according to the Foreign Service Institute.) The site adds, not very optimistically, that it is nevertheless “possible to learn enough of the language at the beginner’s level to enable you to greet Mandarin speakers in their language and conduct a basic conversation”.
Last year, Nonhlanhla Nduna-Watson, director for curriculum policy in the basic education department, said on radio that China had agreed to send over 100 teacher volunteers to teach Mandarin in schools. The volunteers would also be training South African teachers, who cannot speak Mandarin, how to teach Mandarin. This is like teachers teaching high-school maths when their own competence stops at primary school level. So we have 100 possibly qualified teachers spread across a country of 2,600 schools and 12.2-million school kids. Even if only selected schools offer the subject, this is hopelessly inadequate.
Perhaps the government could enlist the help of existing Chinese schools to bolster capacity. But this introduces new controversies. For example, the Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes, which partner with universities around the world to teach Chinese, have been criticised for political influence and inhibiting academic freedom, and in some parts of the US were closed last year for this reason. Because of China’s central economic position in South Africa, any perceived attempts to project “soft power” are likely to be received particularly badly, as the strongly-worded response of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) demonstrates. There are five Confucius Institutes around South Africa, the newest on the University of Johannesburg campus.
All this said, perhaps the benefits of speaking Mandarin are worth these costs? There are a number of reasons why this isn’t the case in South Africa, at least at a school level. First, there is little demand for Chinese-speaking local labour. Chinese multinationals typically operate in small, insider circles; managerial positions are easily filled by fluent English-speaking Chinese, familiar with the particular norms of Chinese business practices. Chinese ventures rely on their own, imported workforces. At most, a basic grasp of Mandarin among young South Africans might be useful to establish a greater degree of trust and respect between trading partners.
But then again, maybe we should be focusing on promoting cross-cultural understanding between South Africa’s own peoples by teaching indigenous languages.
Even if our educational system were functional, it’s doubtful that bringing Mandarin to schools would be worth the hours and hours of opportunity cost. As it stands — and as has been emphasised ad infinitum — ours is a country in which there is insufficient capacity to teach even our own languages; where the standard of maths and science is so low in some schools that even exceptional students stand little chance of getting through; where textbooks — and furniture — still aren’t a guarantee.
Studies have shown learning Mandarin to be an excellent cognitive workout, particularly for developing minds. But even if China shoulders the financial costs, our children would derive far greater benefit if we instead focused on filling the gaping holes in our schooling system. Those who intend to move into an industry where Chinese might be useful can choose to learn Mandarin after high school.
The thing really is this: our kids won’t be in any position to take advantage of economic opportunities that South Africa’s relationship with China might present if they aren’t properly educated, Mandarin-speaking or not. DM
Photo: School children stand in a line as they wait for a soap handout near King Williams Town, South Africa, 01 March 2016. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK.
Want to watch Richard Poplak’s audition for SA’s Got Talent?
Who doesn’t? Alas, it was removed by the host site for prolific swearing*... Now that we’ve got your attention, we thought we’d take the opportunity to talk to you about the small matter of book burning and freedom of speech.
Since its release, Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s book Gangster State, has sparked numerous fascist-like behavior from certain members of the public (and the State). There have been planned book burnings, disrupted launches and Ace Magashule has openly called him a liar. And just to say thanks, a R10m defamation suit has been lodged against the author.
Pieter-Louis Myburgh is our latest Scorpio Investigative journalist recruit and we’re not going to let him and his crucial book be silenced. When the Cape Town launch was postponed, Maverick Insider stepped in and relocated it to a secure location so that Pieter-Louis’ revelations could be heard by the public. If we’ve learnt one thing over the past ten years it is this: when anyone tries to infringe on our constitutional rights, we have to fight back. Every day, our journalists are uncovering more details and evidence of State Capture and its various reincarnations. The rot is deep and the threats, like this recent one to freedom of speech, are real. You can support the cause by becoming an Insider and help free the speech that can make a difference.
*No video of Richard Poplak auditioning for SA’s Got Talent actually exists. Unless it does and we don’t know about it please send it through.
The sound of Krakatoa exploding travelled around the earth three times.