• All About Chinese and China - CHINESE4.EU

    I recently attended the final project meeting for Chinese4.EU, a really worthwhile European Union project for teaching Europeans basic Chinese language and culture. Aimed at visitors to China, it is an online platform with five modules for basic learners, children, students, business visitors and tourists, translated into all twenty-three EU languages. A six-country project, it offers a lively and versatile introduction to Mandarin but also to Chinese culture through its ‘China: Things to know before you go.’ If you’re dealing with China, want to learn a bit about Chinese language and culture or are planning a visit. Set up a free account and start learning. Most people think Chinese is difficult. www.Chinese4.EU makes it easy and enjoyable. Congratulations!

    This is the summary of the keynote presentation I made to the Chinese 4 EU conference in Antwerp on June 7 2013.

    I spent 20 years of my life at the BBC. Just before the China for EU conference I learned that one of China’s leading universities had bought into the former BBC Television Centre in West London. This is a joint venture with London’s Imperial College. Imperial College London is one of Britain’s foremost science universities. Zhejiang will train 3,000 Chinese scientists in English at my former alma mater. My university was London University’s School of Oriental and African studies. I learned West African Languages and anthropology. Did I learn Chinese? No, I didn’t. Do I feel as a European that China is becoming increasingly part of my life? Yes, I do. Do I now feel I have to learn Chinese? That depends.

    This article discusses Chinese language learning, Chinese culture, the role of technology and the role of the Confucius Institutes in spreading Chinese language and culture around the world.

    Reasons to learn

    Three reasons to learn Chinese. The first is business. Increasingly, this will become the driver. Chinese is going to become one of the world’s leading business languages as Chinese commercial power grows internationally. Second, culture. China benefits from a 5,000 year culture and civilisation which we and the Chinese are rediscovering. Thirdly, history. China has a rich and varied history and its relations with the West and other Eastern nations will become increasingly important internationally as a background to understanding the Chinese.

    A difficult language?

    The problem is, Chinese is considered difficult to learn. The idiogram script, the tonal language and the complicated Chinese culture all make it an exceptionally challenging language. In China you need to learn by heart 3000 characters to understand a newspaper in Chinese. As a huge and varied culture, China also has different dialects and different scripts in different areas. However, the whole country learns a unified form of Mandarin writing at school. Increasingly Mandarin is the spoken Chinese variety used in China and overseas. It also has a romanised alphabet ‘Pinyin’.

    Over a fifty-year period the English language developed in the 20th century a standardised form known as modified received pronunciation. This is sometimes called, BBC English. It also developed a carefully graded programme for learning and building English language skills in understanding, speaking, reading and writing and teaches it around the world.

    Chinese will need to harmonise, simplify and grade its language learning programme to improve international communication in Chinese.

    The ‘App’ store: the contribution of online learning

    I learned Arabic script through video. It is much easier to learn the Arabic alphabet if you can watch as the letters form. I think the same goes for Chinese. This is why I think the computer revolution will help Chinese grow more popular. Apps can give learners the opportunity to learn to read and write Mandarin Chinese characters and also to understand and practise Chinese speech. There are already a large number of Chinese apps on the Web. However, the existence of programmes, such as Chinese for EU with EU backing will have greater authority. And as the use of technology expands so will access to Mandarin.

    Learning about Chinese culture

    When you want to understand a business culture, the important thing is to know what to look for. Businesses working with China need to understand Chinese expectations of the relationship, how the Chinese communicate and what their management style is. Expectations, communication and management style are the three keys to business culture. When we consider expectations and communication we study the notion of hierarchy in China and the respect culture, the importance of indirect communication to save face and the value of building good relations through the exchange of favours through ‘guanxi’. When we talk about management style we are comparing how business is organised, how teams operate, the leadership style and how decisions are taken and communicated. We also need to consider etiquette. It is interesting that what scares many British business colleagues most is the etiquette of the Chinese banquet!

    The Confucius Institutes – China’s language and cultural ambassadors

    Since the early nineties China has increasingly invested in its language and cultural mission abroad. It has done so through the nearly 1000 and growing Confucius Institutes, based in universities around the world. Its Confucius classrooms programme pays for Chinese language assistants to give conversation classes in primary and secondary schools. Inevitably, the quality is variable but will improve.

    A comparison with the British Council is useful here. Founded in 1934 and operating in over one hundred countries, the Council has become one of the world’s most successful international relations organisations working in English. It is funded by a grant in aid from the British Foreign Office but also makes money through its English language teaching operations worldwide. Alongside other agencies, including its US equivalents, it has contributed to the international standard of English language learning and teaching in a number of ways.

    • Syllabus and teaching methodology

    It has promulgated standardised approaches to the teaching of English. It has reflected developments in linguistic approach and course design and promoted this through its teaching centres and consultancy service worldwide.

    • Student qualification

    It has promoted a graded system of student language qualification in association with the leading examination bodies, notably Cambridge English exams. Its IELTS 9 grade qualification is now a leading world indicator of English Language Proficiency for university entrance and business employment.

    • Schools assessment and recognition

    The British Council recognition scheme has improved the level of contributing language teaching organisations to a common standard worldwide.

    • Teacher qualification

    This is perhaps its most lasting contribution. It has promoted Teaching English as a Foreign Language education and qualifications in collaboration with examining bodies such as Cambridge English exams and Trinity College. As a result it has helped raise the quality of teaching English as foreign language worldwide.

    If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Confucius Institutes should do the same for Mandarin. It will take a whlle but patience and the long-term view are Chinese virtues.

    Will China take over the world in Mandarin or English?

    China is on course to become the world’s leading economy by 2050. Language learning is driven by business. Will Mandarin replace English as a world language? My opinion is that China will ‘both’ it. China produces the world’s largest number of graduates in English. China is sending huge numbers of students abroad to study in English. The Chinese diaspora in the US and other English speaking countries is returning home. English will remain a leading world business language. Over the next 50-100 years Mandarin will rise to equal and maybe displace it. But it’s a long term project which will need careful management. Until then, congratulations to Chinese 4 EU for helping to set Europe on the path to a Chinese future!


    • Moser David University of Michigan Centre for Chinese Studies

    • Lewis Benny Why Chinese isn’t as hard as you think

    • Graddol David English Next British Council

    • Graddol David English Next China CUP (forthcoming)

    • Fenby Jonathan 2013 Tiger Head, Snake Tails Simon and Schuster

    • Hurn B and Tomalin B (2013) Cross-Cultural Communication London Palgrave Macmillan

    • Tomalin B and Nicks M (2010) The Worlds Business Cultures and How to Unlock Them, London, Thorogood Publishing


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