Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Chinese Language Basics

Occasionally, I’ve encountered school district employees who know very little when it comes to communicating with the parents of their Asian students, even when they work with large numbers of them or are in positions of importance.

I must admit that I was clueless myself when I started working at a school which was nearly 26% Asian. Fortunately, I had a wonderful co-worker named Eva with whom I worked closely for seven years. We became good friends and she taught me a great deal about the basics of Chinese language and culture. At least now I am more knowledgeable about one subgroup within the entire Asian subgroup.

OUSD’s student body is 14% Asian. The majority of the kids are from Cantonese-speaking Chinese families. The second largest sub-subgroup is Vietnamese students, followed by Khmer (Cambodian) students, then Mien and Mandarin-speaking Chinese kids, even fewer Lao and Hmong kids, and then very small numbers of others.

Asians are a significant demographic group in Oakland (15.2% in the 2000 U.S. Census, over 60,000 residents) and they make up a larger portion at many public schools. Given this fact, school employees (and any Oakland resident) could use a basic training about the culture, history and languages of these families. This posting will provide a start.

As proof of the lack of basic knowledge at high levels, I noticed errors in an important state report about OUSD which was released last November.¹

The report reads “In the past year, the district has hired additional student engagement and parent advisory specialists and parent liaisons, including Spanish, Chinese and Cambodian speakers, in an effort to enhance community and family involvement in district schools.”

It then goes on to say, “The district has continued to provide training and support to help parents elected to site and district councils understand their role and responsibilities. The handbooks for School Site Councils, the District Advisory Council, and the district and site English Learner Advisory Committees are provided in Spanish, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Mandarin and Cantonese.”

(If you didn’t notice any errors in the sentences above, then you should continue to read this entry.)

To start with, the phrase about “Chinese…speakers” in the first paragraph is somewhat ambiguous. Therefore, it serves as a useful departure point for explaining spoken Chinese and its variations.

Chinese is unlike many other languages because it has a very large number of distinct spoken forms. The spoken forms are so different from each other that linguists refer to them as linguistic groups rather than dialects.²

Dialects are language variations that are mostly understood by everyone who speaks that language. With English for instance, people from London, Boston, New York and Texas can all understand each other, despite their many differences in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.

However, the Chinese variations are so great that it is not possible for people from various regions to understand each other. A good analogy for the Chinese languages would be the Romance languages of Europe (Italian, French and Spanish). Although they are closely related, they are not totally mutually intelligible. For example, just because a person is French-speaking doesn’t mean they understand much Italian at all.

This is an important point for school district employees to know. When a teacher, or a principal, needs a “Chinese” interpreter for a parent meeting, they need to find a person who speaks the right kind of Chinese!

Cantonese happens to be the main Chinese language spoken by families in Oakland. It is also the language spoken by most of the Chinese Diaspora in overseas Chinese settlements around the world. This situation developed because the southern part of China, near today’s Guangdong Province where Cantonese is spoken, was very poor. People left their homeland in order to seek better opportunities around the globe.³

Mandarin is the main language spoken in the People's Republic of China (mainland China) and the Republic of China (Taiwan). It is the official language of both countries, despite their huge political differences.

Incidentally, Mandarin-speaking immigrants from Taiwan have tended to settled in Bay Area suburbs. Visit Milpitas or Cupertino and you’ll be likely to hear Mandarin. It is also important to know that the majority of overseas Chinese strongly identify with the Republic of China rather than with the People’s Republic of China.

For many years, Taishanese (a variation of Cantonese) was the most common Chinese language spoken throughout North America's Chinatowns, including San Francisco’s Chinatown. These neighborhoods changed to predominantly Cantonese-speaking when a when a huge wave of immigrants arrived in the 1970’s, mostly from Hong Kong.

The ethnic Chinese from Vietnam is another group to know about. They were expelled by Vietnam’s military in the late 1970’s along with scores of other Vietnamese. Many of those refugees settled in the Bay Area. These ethnic Chinese spoke Cantonese at home when they were in Vietnam, but many of them also learned Vietnamese, French, English, and Mandarin when they were growing up.

So although many of OUSD’s Asian English Learners report that they are Cantonese-speaking, there is often a great deal of linguistic versatility in their homes. Parents may not speak English fluently, but they may speak more than one Chinese language. It is also useful to know that many Chinese parents send their children to Chinese school every week to receive formal instruction about their language and other aspects of their culture.

This brings me to the error in the second paragraph.

It makes no sense for the report to state, “The handbooks… are provided in Spanish, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Mandarin and Cantonese.” This is because Mandarin and Cantonese are spoken languages, not written ones. It would be impossible to create a Mandarin handbook unless it was an audio version!

The written language of Chinese evolved more slowly than the spoken language. As a result, the written characters have remained nearly constant despite the variations that developed for the spoken words. It is useful to know that, although speakers of the different Chinese linguistic groups cannot understand each other verbally, they can completely communicate with each other in writing.

There are two main written forms of Chinese, traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese.

Traditional Chinese has been widely used for years among Chinese populations around the world and also in Taiwan. The written symbols represent objects or abstract notions. They occasionally stand alone as independent characters, but are more often combined to form complex characters.

Chinese is a very difficult written language to master. A person’s literacy is determined by the number of characters known, and the number of words known. For instance, a highly educated person may recognize as many as 4,000 to 5,000 characters, and 40,000 to 60,000 words.

Simplified Chinese was developed in mainland China in 1948 after the establishment of the People's Republic of China. It was created to make the written language more accessible to the general population. The characters are faster to write and easier to memorize. Simplified Chinese is virtually universal in the People's Republic of China and is spreading to other communities throughout the world.

Finally, I have one suggestion. One should be careful when using the terms “interpret” and “translate.” Interpret is an action relating to the verbal aspect of transforming the language. Translate refers to an action which is most often written. So if one is speaking properly, they would say that a Cantonese interpreter was used during a meeting, and that the handbooks were translated into Chinese.

Eventually I hope to provide you with a little basic information about the other non-Chinese Asian subgroups in Oakland, including our growing population of Mongolian immigrants. I believe that the residents in a city like Oakland should make every effort to learn about each other because it fosters respect and understanding.

Please add any other information you know.

¹ This was the FCMAT report. FCMAT stands for Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team. This is the body of specialists working for the California Department of Education who have been evaluating OUSD’s progress toward stability. The excerpts are on page 16 of the report at http://boe-webextender.ousd.k12.ca.us/attachments/9074.pdf

² Just some of the other Chinese language groups are Hunanese, Pekingnese, Taiwanese, Ammoy, Folkenese, Fukienese, Shanghainese, Gansunese, Sichuanese, Hainanese, Yunnanese, and Jiangsunese. It is more information than you probably need to know, but it gives you an idea of the complexity of the Chinese language.

³ The first wave of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. arrived from Canton in the 1850’s. They were peasants who were escaping the poverty and overpopulation of their homeland by going to California to seek gold. By the late 1860’s, thousands of laborers were being recruited from Canton (the former name of Guangdong Province) to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. Visit the Perimeter Primate posting on February 25, 2008 called "Oakland's history" to find out more.








The Perimeter Primate said...

Irene sent me the following comment. I am posting it with her permission. She says:

thanks so much for taking the time to write and post this article on Chinese language. what a great resource.

because it seems like you have an interest in details, I wanted to point out a few things that are not necessarily accurate in what you wrote, at least as far as I understand. I'm a parent of a student in Oakland Unified. I also happen to be Chinese American, grew up in Michigan with immigrant parents, and learned Chinese in China.

You mentioned that Taishanese is a variation of Cantonese. I don't think this is exactly right, as people who speak one dialect don't necessarily understand the other (as you pointed out with other Chinese dialects). see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taishan_dialect they also mention this

You wrote that the symbols "occasionally stand alone as independent characters, but are more often combined to form complex characters." This is a bit confusing because "traditional" characters are sometimes also referred to as "complex" characters. You might be mixing the concept of "radical" and "character" here. Radicals are symbols and sometimes stand alone, but usually are combined to form characters. And then many nouns (in particular) are a combination of two characters.

You wrote that a highly educated person may recognize 4,000 characters and 40,000 words. Characters are really words in Chinese. It's just that it's very common for a word to be created from two characters, as you pointed out earlier. Your indicating that a person may recognize characters and words is a bit confusing.

I found the following and think it's pretty clear:

"Characters form the basic unit of meaning in Chinese, but not all characters can stand alone as a word and most Chinese words are formed of two separate characters. For instance "zhongwen", meaning the Chinese language, has two characters as explained above."


Finally, you mention that the majority of overseas Chinese strongly identify with Taiwan or the Republic of China. This makes me nervous, perhaps there have been polls conducted. The current ruling party in Taiwan is a “nativist” party (I made this up). That is, it champions Taiwan provincial natives. While the communists were taking over China (PRC), many people from the mainland fled to Taiwan. The KMT government was an “out of province” government, which contributed to resentments of the native Taiwanese over many years. Now there are tensions between the nativists and the immigrants and the non-Taiwanese in Taiwan (and their children) feel that their status has fallen. Overseas Chinese will be well aware of these political shifts.

thanks again for sharing the posting!

Marnie said...

This is great info to know.

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