As China’s influence in the world continues to grow, my parents continue to press the values of resuming my Mandarin Chinese and written Chinese studies. I gave up learning the language one year ago—I was past the age where I could effectively take on a whole new language. My sister and I dreaded the weekly lessons, which were grounded in rote memorization of daily conversations and traditional poems. According to the Asia Society, the average literate Chinese person knows between three to four thousand characters. Learning how to read, write and even speak Chinese is a long, arduous process for a non-native speaker because the language is not alphabetic. One has to learn each and every new character.
One of the larger difficulties of learning Chinese, though, is the language’s high level of internal diversity. The fact that there are several distinct dialects makes learning Chinese all the more difficult. I grew up learning Cantonese, and living in Chinatown, I had few problems communicating with others because much of the traditional immigrant base in the community was Cantonese. More recently, though, as more Mandarin-speaking immigrants move into the neighborhood, people who grew up exposed to only Cantonese are having more trouble communicating with them.
A New York Times article, “In Chinatown, Sound of Future is Mandarin,” published on October 21, 2009, revealed that changing immigration patterns and China’s rise on the world stage have led to Mandarin eclipsing Cantonese in Chinatown. With Mandarin as the official language in China, more families feel the need to have future generations learn Mandarin instead of Cantonese. In my Chinese school, Mandarin classes outnumbered Cantonese classes two to one, even though most of my friends came from Cantonese-speaking families.
Dialects in China, with the exception of Mandarin, are used almost exclusively in the regions they originated from. Cantonese is used mostly in the southern province of Guangdong while standardized Mandarin originated in Beijing. The regional differences are connected to other more symbolic differences in heritage and history. “Some Cantonese-speaking parents are deciding it is more important to point their children toward the future than the past—their family’s native dialect—even if that leaves them unable to communicate well with relatives in China,” the article says. The purposes of a language extend beyond communication. The language itself, its linguistics and its aesthetic, are part of the culture. Choosing to learn one over another sends strong messages about one’s identity.
While many non-Chinese speakers are aware of the different dialects in the Chinese language, fewer are aware that there are also two different writing systems. In my school, I was taught traditional Chinese, while simplified Chinese was discouraged. Simplified Chinese (used in mainland China and much of the world) is taught at Stuyvesant, as required by the New York State Board of Regents. The system was created by the Chinese government in an attempt to increase literacy rates in China. Under this system, many Chinese characters were simplified, some more heavily than others. More recently, the Chinese government considered simplifying the written language even further.
As in the case of spoken dialects, traditional writing and simplified writing can be very different and sometimes incompatible. Like the standardization of Mandarin Chinese as the official language, the creation of the simplified system was meant to invoke a sense of unity and make the language easier to learn and easier for people to communicate. Proponents of traditional Chinese argue that this modification destroys many colorful aspects of the language. Much of learning written Chinese comes from exploring the aesthetics of the characters and the origins of the words. To give that up in favor of practicality is overlooking much of the language’s beauty and elegance.
While it does not seem plausible to teach Cantonese as a class in Stuyvesant (given the large number of dialects that exist, it just wouldn’t be fair), students would benefit from learning both simplified and traditional writing in Chinese classes. Traditional Chinese is still used in many parts of the world outside mainland China and is still used within the country for ceremonial purposes because of its cultural significance. At Brooklyn Tech, some teachers choose to teach the traditional form alongside the simplified Chinese tested by the Regents Exam.
Often, we are told that the importance of studying a language lies in connecting with the culture, and we may do so in the form of readings or a deep exploration of the country’s history. But from my short-lived experience learning the language, I found that the structure and form invites a strong look into the past. Chinese may not become a dead language in the sense that Latin is a dead language, but as time progresses, the choice of learning only Mandarin and the simplified writing system may cause the Chinese language to lose the internal diversity and tradition that has made it unique. If we do not reevaluate the way we teach Chinese, future generations run the risk of losing these cultural aspects, as we head into a more complicated and globalized world.