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China Not Mad for Mandarin

Beijing announces that 400 million Chinese can't speak the national language


With Mandarin ranking as the most important language for world business after English, stories of American parents enrolling their children in bilingual schools or even uprooting their families from California to Chengdu flood the internet. However, if Mandarin Chinese is to challenge English globally then it may first need to conquer China.

The news from Beijing that 400 million Chinese cannot speak Mandarin has recently made headlines worldwide. The number is staggering; 400 million is almost the equivalent of the entire populations of the United States and Mexico combined, and this is still a conservative estimate. There will be more non-Mandarin speaking mouths which remain uncounted in rural areas and in the illegal immigrant population.

Also, not all those counted as speaking Mandarin are fluent as the survey defines “ability to speak” as an error rate lower than 40% in the Putonghua Evaluation Exam (普通话水平测试). In fact, Xinhua news agency quoted Ministry of Education spokesperson Xu Mei as saying that many of 70% who can speak Mandarin do so “poorly”.

Failed Mandarin learners everywhere may read these figures with a smugness that doesn’t quite heal wounds made by memories of wrongly pronouncing tones to call someone’s mother (mā) a horse (mǎ). There may seem some comfort to be found in this linguistic disunity – it seems to say “don’t worry, even the Chinese can’t speak their own language.”

However, the underlying assumption of this smugness is that Mandarin is “their own language”. Crucially, Mandarin is not any one group’s own dialect, but a lingua franca based on the northern dialects. Its phonology is based on the Beijing dialect but its vocabulary is drawn from the diverse group of different Mandarin dialects spoken across northern, central and southwestern China.

The Problem

The Chinese name for Mandarin, Putonghua (普通話/普通话) or “common tongue’ is therefore something of a misnomer. While it may be assumed that a common tongue might be “of the people”, this standard was historically imposed from above rather than reflecting Chinese language use.

By 1909 Mandarin had been established as the guóyǔ (国语/國語), or national language, by the dying Qing Dynasty, and its evolution and promotion continued under the governments of the Republic of China (est. 1912) and the People’s Republic of China (est. 1949).

Mao Zedong was a particularly great proponent of the proliferation of Mandarin, despite only ever being able to speak his local dialect from Hunan. As is illustrated by the case of Chairman Mao, the history of this “common tongue” has been characterized by the difficulties it faces in supplanting local dialects. In December 2004 the first survey of language use in China revealed that only 53% of its population could communicate in Standard Chinese.

Despite the government flooding classrooms and airways with Mandarin, and its organization of annual campaigns every September for the last 15 years, the country’s thousands of mutually unintelligible dialects, huge physical size and lack of investment in education have been formidable obstacles to linguistic unity.

The Plan

Now, fears over the lack of fluency in Mandarin have stirred calls for action in China. The Shanghaiist recently reported that the former spokesman with the Ministry of Education, Wang Xuming, has posted comments on Sina Weibo calling for English classes in elementary school children to be cancelled so that the number of Chinese lessons could be increased.

While this proposal seems unlikely to succeed, Xinhua news agency has quoted Xu Mei as explaining that “the country still needs to invest in promoting Mandarin.”

“This year the ministry will focus on the remote countryside and areas inhabited by ethnic minorities,” said Xu.

However, this cursory mention of ethnicity skates over the contentious nature of Mandarin promotion in China, where minorities like Tibetans, Uyghurs and Mongols have concerns that their ethnic identity will be lost in a uniform nation.

In 2010 hundreds took to the streets of the southern city of Guangzhou to protest against the marginalization of Cantonese. The crowd, angry at the imposition of Mandarin on primetime television wore “I love Guangzhou” t-shirts, and NBC News reported social media as buzzing with slogans such as “Shame on a city without a dialect” and “Save Cantonese!”

A similar controversy was sparked in October 2010 when several hundred Tibetan students in the town of Tongren demonstrated against rumors that schools would phase out Tibetan classes and change all textbooks in Qinghai to Mandarin.

This month, Reuters reported that officials have themselves admitted they will probably never get the whole country to be able to speak Mandarin.

It therefore seems that while the rest of the world are skyping Beijing speech coaches and flinging themselves into immersion courses, China is one space that Putonghua might never conquer.

Image courtesy of sendusout

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