In every corner of the world there are students struggling with Chinese tones, practising writing characters and perhaps even making sure they have a few chengyu - idiomatic four-character phrases - up their sleeve for extra kudos.But their progress is not as rapid as might be expected.
At least that's according to the international group of experts that gathered at the First World Chinese Conference in Beijing last week. They have been discussing the way Chinese is taught around the world.
Estimates vary as to the number of people learning Chinese, but none falls below 30 million. The numbers are growing as Chinese is offered at more and more universities and even schools, and as the China National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language enthusiastically directs the establishment of teaching institutes.
But many students do not seem to be getting very far. The high level of interest in Chinese and hours of hard work are not paying off.
One of the experts at the conference was Peter Kupfer, director of the School of Applied Linguistics and Culture Studies in Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. He contrasted the high number of Chinese learners with a lack of really competent Chinese speakers, citing Germany as an example.
There, he said, there are only three people who can provide thoroughly proficient German-Chinese simultaneous translation. The problem exists even at the very heart of China's international interactions - in the world of business. Kupfer pointed out that many foreigners who come to work in China speak limited or no Chinese, and although many local staff have studied English, communication over technical matters can sometimes be highly problematic.Why is the Chinese language giving the world such a hard time?
One major obstacle is that Chinese language acquisition is so poorly understood.
Hao Ping, director of Beijing Foreign Languages University, spoke at the conference.
Until now, he said, Chinese learning and teaching methods have relied upon European language acquisition theory, which is completely inappropriate as the two language families are radically different.</>
Expressing a belief endorsed by many of the speakers at the forum, Hao stated that it is imperative a specialized field of Chinese language acquisition theory be developed as soon as possible.The process of Chinese language acquisition is thought to be unique.
An interesting piece of evidence for this was offered by Zhou Xuan, assistant to the President of Nanjing University. Zhou noted Chinese students have a particularly strong academic record at foreign universities.
This is believed, he said, to be influenced by the nature of Chinese language acquisition and the way in which it stimulates development of the brain from a young age. Some research suggests knowing Chinese increases IQ by 15-20 points. The character-based writing system generally takes the blame for the language's difficulty. Even Chinese children take longer to reach a certain level of literacy than their counterparts learning to read in languages with phonetic writing systems. It is into this aspect of Chinese, therefore, that research is most urgently needed. Studies are already under way in Australia, which has the world's highest percentage population of Chinese learners.
Andrew Scrimgeour is a research fellow at the University of South Australia's Research Centre for Languages and Cultures Education.
"In an alphabetic language, the reader looks at a word on the page, immediately knows its sound, and can connect it to a meaning directly through the brain's oral lexicon," he said.
"When a learner looks at a Chinese character, the brain must connect it separately to its sound and to its meaning." This aspect of learning Chinese poses a particular challenge for Western learners. Japanese and Korean students have an advantage as their languages, though unrelated to Chinese, give them some exposure to characters.
Despite this, said Scrimgeour, teaching methods in China are biased towards Japanese and Korean learners. These students make up around two-thirds of foreign students in China, and have therefore been on the receiving end of the bulk of resources allocated to teaching research.
Speakers at the conference were advocating changes to Chinese teaching methods worldwide. "Modern Chinese language teaching is too traditional and lacks vitality," said Zhu Yongsheng, Dean of Fudan University's International Cultural Exchange College, referring to the heavy reliance on textbooks, passive learning and emphasis on grammar.
"Language learning should not be a torture for foreign students," Zhu said.
Speakers advocated a shift from teacher-oriented to student-centred methods. Teacher-centred learning has the student entirely dependent upon the instructor for information, rather than being given the freedom to create his or her own learning process.
"Students don't learn what the teacher tells them, they learn what they understand," said Scrimgeour. As a result, student-centred learning is far more effective.
The excellent Chinese spoken by many foreign experts at the conference demonstrated indisputably that fluency in Chinese is an attainable goal for second-language learners.
But very few students have the stamina and motivation to pursue this goal, often painfully, even to the bright end. As the government moves ahead with plans to pour US$200 million into its international "Bridge of Chinese Language Programme," it is hoped that careful research and creative thinking will profoundly change teaching methods and materials, and perhaps reveal some of the mysteries of the Chinese language to an eager world.