“Taiwan still a good place to learn Mandarin”

The following is an op-ed piece from yesterday’s edition of the Taipei Times that considering I myself went to Taiwan instead of China to study Chinese makes a very good point. Time Magazine’s goddawful article on learning Mandarin can be found at their web site here.

Taiwan still a good place to learn Mandarin
By Dan Bloom

Tuesday, Jul 25, 2006,Page 8

“Time” magazine published a long feature in its June 19 edition about the benefits of studying Mandarin — in China. Not once did the magazine’s 10-page report mention that Taiwan is also a good place to study, learn and live the Chinese language. How could such a reputable, international magazine, with many readers in Taiwan miss the boat on this?

When a reporter in Taiwan queried a Time editor in Hong Kong about the cover story, which was titled “Get Ahead, Learn Mandarin,” he received the following note: “The story did not discuss Taiwan because the subject of our cover story that issue was the rising interest in studying Chinese. That phenomenon is directly related to the growth of the Chinese economy, hence the focus on China. People study Mandarin in Taiwan, of course, but that has long been the case and isn’t really news.”

Good answer, but it didn’t really answer my question. When an international news magazine devotes its cover story to “learning Mandarin” in Asian nations such as Japan and South Korea and does not once mention the country of Taiwan as a place to learn Chinese, something is very wrong in the biased way the editors perceive things. Perhaps Time’s editors in Hong Kong believe that Taiwan is a mere province of China and therefore not worth a mention in the article in question?

Mark Caltonhill, a longtime resident of Taiwan, recently wrote an online commentary in the Taiwan Journal about his own learning curve in acquiring Mandarin. He noted that Taiwan was a very good place to learn and live the Chinese language, and is not in any way inferior to China.

Caltonhill wrote: “Whatever [a] student’s interests and specialties — art or history, religion or philosophy, literature, martial arts or Chinese cuisine — Taiwan has as much or more to offer [than China].”

Taipei, of course, is a very good place to study Chinese. Time’s editors know that. Time even has reporters who work for the magazine here. And there are many schools here that offer Mandarin classes, such as National Taiwan Normal University’s Center for Chinese Language and Culture, the National Taiwan University Language Center and the Tamkang University Language Center.

The Time article stressed that “while English may be the only truly international language, millions of tongues are wagging over what is rapidly becoming the world’s other lingua franca: Mandarin.”

Quoting a statement by British linguist David Gaddol, the magazine added: “In many Asian countries, in Europe and the US, Mandarin has emerged as the new must-have language.”

Time even quoted a professor in China, who said: “Promoting the use of Chinese among overseas people has gone beyond purely cultural issues. It can help build up our national strength and should be taken as a way to develop our country’s `soft power.'” That was Hu Youqing, a Chinese-language professor at Nanjing University talking.

Time mentioned that China has sent more than 2,000 volunteers to teach Mandarin overseas, mostly in Asian nations such as Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea. Why didn’t it also mention that Taiwan also has sent volunteer teachers to several Asian countries? China’s goal is to have 100 million foreigners studying Mandarin by the end of the decade. Well, won’t some of them be studying Mandarin in Taipei or Kaohsiung? Time missed the boat again.

Will Mandarin ever overtake English as the world’s common language? Probably not, but as Time notes, “just as knowing English proved a key to getting ahead in the 20th century, learning Chinese will provide an edge in the 21st.” This was a good point and was an important theme of the entire cover story. But by ignoring Taiwan — not mentioning Taiwan even once in the entire feature — the magazine’s editors showed their ignorance and bias against Taiwan, even though they work and live in Asia.

Taipei is a very good place to learn and live the Chinese language, and Time magazine did a huge disservice to its readers around the world by ignoring Taiwan completely in its June 19 cover story.

Wake up, Time magazine, China does not have a monopoly on Chinese-language centers and Mandarin schools. Wake up and smell the coffee — in Taiwan, too.

Dan Bloom is a freelance writer based in Chiayi.

7 thoughts on ““Taiwan still a good place to learn Mandarin””

  1. Hey, I’ve been saying we’re surrounded on all sides by the iniquity of Chinese propaganda all along. And having learned Mandarin in Taiwan I can confirm that we we did so in a civilized and highly professional manner–just as people do in other countries. In fact, all during the 1950s and through the Cultural Revolution and on into the 1980s American academics almost invariably came to Taiwan to study mandarin and other aspects of Chinese culture. Why? Because even during the 1970s places like Shihda and the Yale in China program (now in China) were producing topnotch scholars of China and Chinese. Taiwan’s level of mandarin educational quality is, actually, very high and I think that is all too often forgotten–especially by us former students.

    Anyway, good post man.

  2. I have a different perspective on this:

    1) The language in Taiwan isn’t really that standard (as defined by most of the billion+ Mandarin speakers in the world). When I was in Beijing, a fair number of people couldn’t understand me due my Taiwanese accent and diction. Especially during my first few days there, I had to spend a lot of time explaining myself and asking for clarifications.
    2) Price is a huge factor in mainland China’s favor. It’s MUCH cheaper to study there.
    3) The issue of size is also important. The article never mentioned Taiwan, but it never mentioned Heilongjiang province specifically, either. Heilongjiang is known as the place with the most standard Mandarin in China. It also has nearly double the population of Taiwan and one of the most prestigious Mandarin schools in the world.

    I realize Taiwan is in a special situation and can’t be compared to just any old Chinese province. However, with higher living costs, non-standard language and with less than 2% of all Mandarin speakers living here, it’s hardly a shoe-in as a Chinese learning destination. For EFL teachers, though, Taiwan is the place.

  3. Mark,

    Your point 2) is certainly a valid and important one. However, 1) is problematic. I’m not really sure what you mean in 3) and I interpret it as an extension of 1). I will therefore focus on the theme of “standard language” that runs through both 1) and 3). It’s a complex topic and I’m just touching very lightly on it. Apologies for rambling! I’d suggest consulting some of the literature in Sociolinguistics, Critical Applied Linguistics and related fields.

    You might find James Tollefson’s paper is a good start

    “Standard” language is an abstraction and a socio-political construct. It needs to be questioned, rather than taken uncritically as a given concept with a common-sense meaning.

    The idea of “standard” also feeds into the myth of “one China” in the sense of the Han people and their language being synonomous with “Chinese”. For example, we usually translate 汉语/ 漢語 (language of the Hans) as “Chinese”. Anybody who has studied an introductory course in Linguistics must be familiar with the age-old problem of defining “language” and “dialect” in the context of China. Most linguists talk about the “Chinese languages” these days when they refer to Cantonese, Taiwanese, Hakka etc. It’s no longer to say these are “just dialects” because they are spoken within one country (sort of) and share a common writing system as people used to argue.

    What is “Standard”? For Chinese (Putonghua), one partial (and trivial) test might be to say speakers who distinguish initials zh, ch, sh from z, c, s have a more “standard” pronunciation than those who don’t. No surprise that this rules out much of China, as well as Taiwan. So a lot of people [most!] are speaking varieties of Chinese that have conflated these sets of initials or use them in free variation. It’s clear then that it doesn’t make much difference in communication (once you get used to it). A stereotypical example is the pronunciation of 四 and 十. Without the s vs sh distinction, all we have is a different tone. In fast speech it can be hard to distinguish. But, any ambiguity is soon handled by making a 十字 with the fingers to accompany the pronunciation.

    Of course, it can be hard for a foreigner [especially beginners] to deal with variation. But it’s a fact of life – it won’t go away. My ex-father-in-law spoke with a heavy Sichuan accent and all the tones seemed completely upside down to me. My ex-mother-in-law had a Wuhan accent mixed with God knows what! Being around them was an interesting experience for a foreigner who has been learning/speaking the language for 30 years (and has also taught it). It was very humbling not to be able to understand simple words sometimes. But that was my problem.

    Think about what happens with English. International students go to many different English-speaking countries to learn English. They meet different accents and different vocabularies and idioms. Is this a problem? Not anymore. It’s even considered a good idea to hire EFL teachers these days who come from a number of different backgrounds – including teachers who have English as a second/foreign language. The emphasis is not on learning some “standard”, but becoming familiar with the diversity that one may easily meet and preparing learners for dealing with it. (The term “World Englishes” is now a common one.)

    I don’t see why the future should be any different for teaching Chinese. Taiwan? Beijing? Sichuan? Heilongjiang? If you are serious about studying “Chinese” (I mean going beyond artificial textbook language) and having the knowledge of the language and how its used comparable to an educated “native speaker” [another abstraction], then you need to be exposed to as many different varieties as possible. As a foreign user you will probably model your own speech on some abstract “standard”. But familiarity with the “Chineses” we find in the real world can only be to our advantage. If you are planning to live the rest of your life in Newfoundland and just talk to Newfies, then you’d better learn to speak “Newfie” and forget about the rest of the world. Similarly, if the only Chinese you ever meet are from Heilongjiang, then just learn their way of speaking. But the result, in both cases, will be speakers who are 井底之蛙!

    As language learners surely we all need to climb out of our “wells” and expand our “repertoires”…it might seem “natural” that we start with an ideologically constructed “standard”, but that’s just the elephant’s tail (as in the chengyu story 盲人摸象).

  4. Thank you very much for that Gweilo. I must say I agree with you 100%. There are plenty of good reasons to study in the mainland, but the idea of “standard” Mandarin is really just a fantasy. I mean, yes, there is an official standard in textbooks, but the fact is that even people in Beijing speak very differently from that, and I found it almost comical how my least good teacher in Taipei was trying to teach us something more resembling textbook Mandarin than the way people actually speak anywhere in the country.

    I have spent 9 months studying Chinese in Taipei, and I would like to spend some more time there, and perhaps other parts of Taiwan, but before that I also want to travel around China and spend a few months settled down a bit somewhere in the country specifically so that I can broaden my exposure to different ways of speaking. Not to mention the cultural differences.

    I also find it very unlikely that people in Beijing could not understand a Taiwan accent. I thought everyone in the mainland watched tv shows and movies from Taiwan-or are they just reliant on the subtitles?

  5. Gwelio – Do you have experience with Newfoundland English? I am pleasantly suprised to see a Newfoundland ref in a post about Chinese.

  6. so I see you have spent 9 month in Taipei,
    I am considering either Beijing or Taipei to study Chinese
    but I’m still confuse where to

    could you tell your experience there?


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