Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Oz Chinese studies: speak or read?

Posted by Dave Bath on 2008-05-15

When politicians call for increased teaching of Asian languages (presumably with an emphasis on Chinese), I wonder if they have thought of the difference between written and spoken capabilities.

For one thing, there seem to be genetic differences between populations that use pitch as part of the spoken language (tonal languages, e.g. Mandarin), and those that don’t (non-tonal languages e.g. Proto-Indo-European).  Occidental populations thus face significant hurdles to learning spoken Mandarin.

No such problem is found in written Chinese – indeed pronunciation is irrelevant to understanding the written language.

Consider that while spoken languages are useful for things like finding the toilet or getting a coffee, written languages are more useful for transmitting more complex ideas found in philosophical or business documents.

To those of us raised when European languages were taught in schools, the difference in subject matter of Latin and French classes illustrates this point.  While French emphasized oral language, and covered the relationship between M.Dupre and his cat in the loungeroom, in Latin the emphasis was on the written language, covering literature (e.g. ripping yarns about Aeneas), the arts of government (e.g. Res Gestae Divi Augustus, the letters of Pliny the Younger), or philosophy (Cicero).

So, can our politicians clear up what they want?  Is it more important for Australians to ensure minimum difficulties when Chinese tourists sample our cafe culture, or more important for us to engage with Chinese political and economic organizations?

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