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New Post 26.07.2010 13:46
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Learning Mandarin Chinese the Taiwan way 

Learning Mandarin Chinese the Taiwan way

When Jim Rogers, the internationally renowned investor and financial commentator, wanted to give his newborn daughter a gift of lasting value, the best one he could think of was hiring a Mandarin-speaking nanny.

He hoped early exposure to Mandarin would ensure that his daughter, now 6, could grow up a native speaker of the language.

Rogers is not alone. In recent years businessmen, investors, and an increasing number of people from all walks of life and nationalities, have begun to show an interest in learning more about the language, history and culture of China.

Many of these people are surprised to learn, however, that in the view of many experts and language instructors, the best place to learn Chinese is not mainland China, but Taiwan.

“We like to tell people: If you want to know 50 years of Chinese history, then mainland China is a good place to go. But if you want to learn all 5,000 years of it, then you definitely have to come to Taiwan,” said Chou Chung-tien, director of the Mandarin Training Center at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei.

“Undoubtedly, Taiwan is THE place to learn Chinese language and culture,” Chou said.

Mainland China, under communist rule, has abandoned the traditional way of writing Chinese characters, and uses simplified characters.

Readers of simplified characters who wish to make the transition to reading traditional characters often have a hard time, however. But readers of traditional characters can learn to read simplified characters with relative ease.

Thus students who learn to read Chinese in Taiwan are often in a better position to absorb all of Chinese culture, as opposed to only that written in the last half century or so.

Traditional Chinese culture also suffered a serious blow during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, when many aspects of China’s “feudal” past were vociferously denounced and rejected. Taiwan, by contrast, has long valued and taken great pride in its Chinese heritage.

All this means that in many ways the people of Taiwan are more “connected” to traditional Chinese culture than mainlanders.

The MTC is the oldest of among roughly 30 Chinese learning centers in Taiwan. Founded in 1956, it has provided Chinese language lessons to more than 48,000 students.

Among its most notable graduates are David McMullen, who studied there in the 1960s, and was a professor in Chinese studies at Cambridge University; Ryutaro Hashimoto (1970s), prime minister of Japan from 1996 to 1998; and Kevin Rudd (1985-1986), prime minister of Australia from 2007 until 2010.

During the Cold War, westerners preferred Taiwan to mainland China as “ ‘the’ place to get a real taste of the Chinese language and culture,” Chou said. “That’s when the MTC established its good reputation.”

But things have changed since the mainland began its economic reform policies in the late 1970s. It has gradually overtaken Taiwan as the world’s most popular place for foreigners to study Chinese.

According to statistics provided by the Ministry of Education, between 2007 and 2009 fewer than 11,000 foreigners came to Taiwan to study Chinese.

During the same period of time, an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people from around the world flocked to mainland China for the same purpose.

Chou said the number of students studying Chinese in Taiwan has stayed pretty much the same, while more and more students are studying in the mainland every year.

In addition to the disparity in numbers, the MTC chief has also noticed some important differences that set the two groups of language students apart.

Those who come to Taiwan on the whole tend to be admirers of Chinese culture and literature. For this group, knowledge of all things Chinese is its own reward.

But those who study in the mainland usually do so because for them knowledge of Chinese is necessary for their career.

“That’s why almost 90 percent of the international Chinese learners go to the mainland, because besides learning Chinese, they want to establish contact with the people and the community there,” Chou said.

But Taiwan has its own charms, Chou said, that will continue to make it an appealing place to study Chinese. It is a democracy, while the mainland still has an authoritarian form of government. Also, Taiwan society is freer and more open than that of the mainland.

In addition, Taiwan is known for its hospitality and friendliness to foreigners. Finally, “some students really believe that if they want to learn ‘better’ Chinese, they definitely have to come to Taiwan,” Chou said.

In an attempt to further promote the Taiwan way of teaching mandarin, National Taiwan Normal University, with which the MTC is affiliated, established a Department of Applied Chinese Language and Literature three years ago.

“Since there is little room to attract foreign students to Taiwan, sending teachers overseas may be an alternative,” said department chair Tsai Ya-hsun.

Students in the department are required to work overseas as intern instructors every summer. The destinations can range from the U.S., France, Singapore and Malaysia, Tsai said.

Its students are also required to learn the two most common ways of transliterating Chinese characters: the Mandarin Phonetic Symbols, known to students as “bopomofo,” used in Taiwan, and the “Pinyin” system used in mainland China.

DACLL students, furthermore, are expected to know both simplified and traditional characters, Tsai added. These skills, the department hopes, will allow its graduates to teach the Chinese language everywhere in the world and be successful.

But all that is not enough. Tsai is pushing all students in the DACLL to pass the California Basic Educational Skills Test and California Subject Examinations for Teachers, the admission tickets for those who want to teach Chinese in K-12 public schools in the Golden State, the most populous state in the United States.

“Another way to expand Taiwan’s influence in Chinese teaching is through digital learning, which is also Taiwan’s edge,” added Lien Yu-jen, MTC’s technical specialist.

For example, overseas Chinese teachers often exchange teaching materials or new methods at http://www.huayuworld.org/, the website maintained by Taiwan’s Cabinet-level Overseas Compatriot Affairs Commission.

The huayuworld website was founded in May 2008. Within a short time, there have been 12,228 blogs and 3,973 taught lessons on the Internet platform. As of June 2010, 3.83 million visitors from 156 countries and 9,463 cities have visited the site, according to OCAC tallies.

It is true that more students in recent years have been studying Mandarin in the mainland. But Taiwan has a certain niche in Chinese language learning, language instructors agree.

Those who value freedom and democracy, tradition and preservation of the past will find it an ideal learning environment. Those who are not afraid to embrace technology will feel the same.

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