What is the best way to learn Chinese?
As China rises on the global business stage, more people want to learn the language. The question is, which version?
The debate over which method to adopt-traditional or simplified Chinese-has become a matter of national identity and ideology.
When P.S. 163 in the Flushing section of Queens, N.Y., pioneered a fully bilingual Chinese-English immersion program for its 49 kindergarten students this fall, the school’s principal, Lucius Young, faced a dilemma: Which writing system should the school use for its Chinese curriculum?
While the school’s students shuttle between classrooms painted red (for instruction in Chinese) and blue (for instruction in English), the debate over using simplified or traditional Chinese is more complicated than just switching the color schemes of the walls.
Young studied various models used in California bilingual schools and held many meetings with the school board, teachers and parents. Finally, they reached a consensus: The school will teach traditional Chinese during the first year and begin to introduce simplified Chinese from the second year on, thus exposing students to both systems.
The predicament P.S. 163 encountered has played out in many schools around the country.
Currently, two writing systems-traditional and simplified Chinese-are widely used in various parts of the world. Traditional Chinese, which has existed for more than 2,000 years, is written in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Simplified Chinese, popularized by Mao Tse-tung after he came to power in 1949, is the gold standard in mainland China. Simplified Chinese uses fewer strokes and groups similar-sounding words into common characters.
Supporters of the traditional script have criticized Mao’s language reform as arbitrary, and linguists have lamented that the beauty of the original ideograms was lost in the new shorthand version.
The furor over which method to adopt is also a matter of national identity and ideological debate, and the Chinese and Taiwanese governments are competing to mainstream their versions in the international arena.
“If you study traditional, you can learn Chinese culture of 2,000 years,” said Ethan C.Y. Kuo, director of the cultural division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York. “However, if you study simplified, you only have access to 50 years of Chinese history.”
Some educators believe that studying the traditional form adds depth to students’ learning. “It is a very graphic and fun way to help children master Chinese,” said Jerry Huang, Region 6 coordinator of the Association of Chinese Schools.
“They can see how the characters evolved from pictures such as the mountain, sun and water. It will help them memorize the words.”
Other educators argue that starting with simplified Chinese makes learning the language less arduous, especially for foreigners.
Elizabeth Irwin High School, a private school in New York City, started offering Chinese classes two years ago. Because writing the characters has been difficult for the mostly white, black and Hispanic students, Zhang Guoqing, the school’s Chinese teacher, opted to teach simplified Chinese.
“I don’t expect all my students to grow up to be China experts,” she said. “If they continue to study Chinese, they can choose whatever system they want at college.”
Some educators cater to the needs of students of both versions. Bai Jianhua, a professor of Chinese at Ohio’s Kenyon College, lets his students pick their preference.
He uses hybrid textbooks, which are printed in both simplified and traditional characters. Students can choose which half of the book to use after they master the basics.
At Columbia University in New York City, students study traditional Chinese during the first two years of the bachelor’s degree program in East Asian studies and then simplified Chinese during the second two years, said Columbia professor Liu Leling. “We want students to be able to use or recognize both,” he said.
This year, for the first time, the College Board offered a new Advanced Placement test in Chinese language and culture. The 2,460 students who took the exam were able to view questions and type answers in either simplified or traditional Chinese, said Thomas Matts, director of AP Course Audit.
The AP test was sponsored in part by both mainland China and Taiwan. Mainland China funded half of the $1.37 million budget. The Taiwanese government kicked in $300,000.
Both governments have provided other assistance to foster the teaching of Chinese in the U.S.
Taiwan organizes workshops and sends linguists to the U.S. to work with Chinese teachers. The government has also set up an e-learning site that allows teachers in the U.S. to access the latest teaching materials.
For its part, mainland China has sent 150 teachers to the U.S. since last year to help address a shortage of qualified Chinese instructors.
In 2004, the mainland government also set up the Confucius Institute, a rapidly expanding franchise that provides Chinese teachers and textbooks to educational institutions around the world.
The institute, which teaches only simplified Chinese, has opened 210 centers in 64 countries. Thirty-eight are located in the U.S.
In November, the University of Rhode Island signed a five-year contract with the Chinese government to open a Confucius Institute there.
For a less affluent state university like URI, the program serves as a quick solution to the growing demand for Chinese-language courses, said John Grandin, professor of German and director of the university’s international-engineering program. “It was a pragmatic choice,” Grandin said.
The university, which offers a dual-degree program in engineering and a foreign language had only one temporary instructor for its Chinese courses before its Confucius Institute opened. Now it has one permanent Chinese teacher and expects to add two more next year.
Some critics of Confucius Institutes claim that they allow China to exert power and culturally invade other nations. Chinese authorities dismiss such allegations.
“We do not force other institutions to open Confucius Institutes,” said Fanglin Ai, consul of the education division of the Chinese consulate in New York.
“It’s a voluntary process. We don’t question them about their teaching methods or inquire about their curriculum.”
Some linguists believe that the rising popularity of simplified Chinese is part of the natural evolution of the language. Others see it as a human-inspired push that should be slowed down.
“What if in 10 or 100 years, the traditional Chinese has been wiped out and the simplified Chinese continues to morph into another language, like Korean or Japanese?” asked James Ching-nan Chang, director of a cultural center in Queens, N.Y., that offers classes in traditional Chinese.
“We should take action now before it is too late.”