According to recent press reports, it seems that over 400 million Chinese are not able to speak Mandarin – their own national language. China has no official language policy. If Chinese statistics are accurate, it would mean that there are more many Chinese passport holders who do speak Mandarin Chinese than US citizens (315 million people live in the US). The population of the European Union is estimated to be 507 million.
Fast, unavoidable globalization means that countries not only spend time and resources on their economic expansion, but that every government, willingly or not seems to expand the domains of its mainstream language use and squeeze the survival space for minority languages and/or dialectal uses – and China is no exception.
France has historically been an example of a “state language” (French was only spoken by about 40% of French population at the time of the French Revolution) being used as a tool for “integration”. Other languages spoken by large sections of society like Breton, Occitan, Catalan and Basque, for example, were relegated in favor of the national language (French, as we know it, spoken in Central and Northern France). Language and national identity have been often confused in history.
Mandarin is the only and main language that is promoted in China within its language engineering project in the second half of the 20th century. However, state media has reported that many Chinese are not sufficiently proficient in Mandarin and the Chinese government is pushing for national linguistic unity.
Promotion of Mandarin has been high on the agenda of the Chinese government for decades. As with French, Mandarin is a tool to unite a nation that is linguistically and ethnically diverse – with thousands of often mutually unintelligible dialects and numerous minority languages. Anybody who has visited China will have noticed that the local currency carries several scripts, including forms of Turkic from the Western regions where Kazakh, Uygur and Kyrgyz are spoken. Korean and Mongolian are spoken near those countries. All those languages, plus Russian, Tajik, Tatar, Tuvan, Uzbek and Vietnamese are considered minority languages.
The biggest divide for native Chinese, nevertheless, is between Mandarin and Cantonese, the Southern dialect. The drive towards “unity” has been hampered by the country’s size and lack of investment in education, particularly in poor rural areas. Despite efforts, many officials have admitted they will probably never get the whole country to be able to speak Mandarin, formally called Putonghua (meaning “common tongue”), suggesting everyone should be able to speak it.
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Distance, natural barriers and administrative and political evolution of regions have created dialects in practically every country, although each country may have its own national identities and national language. China’s language map may look more like Spain, where several regional languages have survived pressure from an international, world-language and flourished in the late 20th century. Chinese Ministry of Education spokeswoman Xu Mei said that only 70% of the country could speak Mandarin, many of them poorly, and the remaining 30 percent or 400 million people could not speak it at all, Xinhua news agency reported.
Written Chinese is the eldest writing system still in use, and it is the same for everybody, no matter the accent or pronunciation. Chinese characters are not letters. As “pictograms” they bear meaning on their own. Chinese dialects pronounce the characters in a different way than standard Mandarin – sometimes strikingly different.
Newer technologies (mobile telephony) are making romanji (the use of the Latin script, based on letters) more popular. It is said that younger students are using Western letters more and more often, finding it easier to spell a letter-based alphabet than Chinese. Students spend several years in school learning how to read and write properly, whereas children learning to read and write letter-based alphabets average one year for the basics, irrespective of their mother tongue.
Ahead of an annual campaign to promote Mandarin held every year since 1998, Xu stated 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”. The promotion of Mandarin has long been a contentious issue in China, and in some cases has lead to violent unrest. Tibetans have protested against having to use Mandarin in schools. Several hundred people took to the streets in the southern city of Guangzhou in 2010 over fears the authorities were trying to marginalize the Southern dialect, Cantonese.
The country with the highest language diversity
There seems to be a determined confusion (not only in China, but also in the US and many European countries) to identify nationality with ethnicity and language.