I often take a long pause when I am asked about what I do in Beijing, especially if the person is from Malaysia.
For the last two decades, more than 90% of Chinese Malaysian families send their children to vernacular primary schools. Those who do not read and write some basic Chinese are clearly the minority these days.
So when I say I am learning Hanyu (the Chinese language) here in the Chinese capital, I see baffled expressions. To them, it seems as ridiculous as an Anglo-Australian learning English in England.
I grew up in an era where my parents definitely did not believe that the vernacular system had any future. It seemed to them that China was going to fail after the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square student uprising.
What’s more, with English being the lingua franca, those who had placed their bets on Chinese education seemed to be on the same slippery slope back to the Chin Dynasty!
However history played out differently and China is an emerging super power and has indeed become a desirable laguage to learn. Even pre-schoolers and elementary schoolchildren in different parts of the world are beginning to see the need to learn Chinese.
Vernacular education is still a thorny subject in Malaysia.
Some live and die by it like Mao’s little red book, while others see it as an obstacle to national unity. But at whichever side of the fence you sit on, it is an undeniable fact that Hanyu, Putonghua, Zhongwen, Guoyu or whatever they call it in China, has become an important global language.
And with China embracing globalisation like a born-again capitalist, the demand for Hanyu classes is skyrocketing faster than the Shanghai Stock Exchange.
The Office of Chinese Language Council International or better known as Hanban is in charge of spreading Chinese language and culture all over the world. Under Hanban is the Confucius Institute (Kongzi Xueyuan) that is responsible of the real action.
The Confucius Institute is the Chinese equivalent to the British Council or Alliance Francaise although it runs the institution differently from the others.
The Institute often works as a conduit for a partner Chinese university and a local institute of higher learning. To date, there are more than 300 Confucius Institutes and an almost equal number of Confucius Classrooms worldwide.
For the many Malaysians who, for whatever reasons, have missed out on an early education in Chinese, learning Hanyu need not entail the arduous task of relocating to China.
The Confucius Institute for Malaysia has just started its maiden part-time Hanyu program at the Universiti Malaya city campus this year. And unlike other programmes, all teachers at the Institute are from the mainland. This helps reduce many of the Hokkien and Cantonese related anomalies in pronunciation that many Malaysians have accepted as the norm.
Its partner is the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) and it aims to be the premier Mandarin language centre by 2012. BFSU is of course no stranger to Malaysia as it is the only university in China that has a Malay department.
Currently there are more than 100 students pursuing a Chinese course at the BFSU in Beijing under a government scholarship program. Upon graduation they are expected to serve as Chinese teachers with the Education Ministry. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s son Norashman Razak Najib is an alumnus of BFSU after a three-week stint as a language student earlier this year.
Another part-time option is at the Hanban-sanctioned Shanghai Jiaotong University – Global Hanyu and Culture Centre (SJTU-GHCC) in Three Two Square, Petaling Jaya. They have the Baby Panda classes to cater for pre-primary school kids all the way to the completion of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK).
The HSK examination is for Chinese what TOEFL and IELTS are for English and comes under the purview of Hanban. It is the only Mandarin Chinese proficiency test for foreign students in China. The HSK was recently revised and now consists of only six levels — with Level One being elementary and Level Six being advanced. Most Chinese universities would require at least a Level Four for science subjects and Level Six for other language intensive degrees.
The HSK exams are held almost every other month in China to cater for the ever growing number of foreign students learning Hanyu. In Malaysia the HSK exams are held twice a year but this would largely depend on the school and the enrolment number.
Mandarin is one of the most difficult languages to learn as an adult. My former Russian classmate once said that learning Hanyu was harder than building the Great Wall.
And this is coming from someone who writes Cyrillic for a living. I often thought that being Malaysian gives me an advantage over the otherlaowai (foreigners). But after two months in Beijing, I changed my mind.
For more information on dates and prices for the Confucius Institute – University Malaya Mandarin lessons please visit their website at http://kongzium.edu.my/index for the same at Shanghai Jiaotong University – Global Hanyu and Culture Centre).
By Clarence Chua, The Star