Chinese is the language of the world’s oldest and richest continuous civilisation. It has at least five thousand years of history, with many symbols from early times that are still used today. The written language uses single distinctive symbols, or characters 汉字 (hàn zì), to represent each syllable. Although the system of writing has evolved and the vocabulary vastly expanded, the principles of the language together with the symbols and characters have remained constant. While many native languages and dialects exist in China, the writing is common to them all, because it is not alphabetic.
Today, the characters used in the People’s Republic of China are, generally, ‘simplified’, while those used in Taiwan are ‘traditional’ or ‘full form’. Pinyin is a system of written Chinese that uses the Latin alphabet.
There are many reasons why Chinese is an important language to learn. It is the most widely spoken on earth and is becoming increasingly influential thanks to China’s ever growing economic, political and cultural power.
However, it is not only China’s global status that makes the language vital to learn. It is the intellectual benefits that can be especially advantageous to children. Learning Chinese develops cognitive skills and enhances musical ability because of its tonal associations. Chinese writing develops spatial understanding and shape recognition.
Psychologists suggest that children are open to better and easier learning of Chinese, as it is a tonal language and they have the sensitivity to pick up nuances of tone and sound. This makes it easier for children to grasp Chinese pronunciation.
Learning a foreign language is by no means an easy task. It takes time and energy to master. The expectation is that learning Chinese will broaden a child’s cultural horizons because it opens a window into a fascinating history and culture.
Learning Chinese will improve a pupil’s career opportunities. Knowing the language will give him/her an extra edge in the increasingly global economy. China has become a huge market. Business leaders and international corporations are looking for people who can speak the language and operate successfully in a Chinese cultural context. As China is broadening its diplomatic influence and assuming an increasingly important role in world affairs, governments (including the UK) need Chinese specialists to deal with the affairs related to China.
- The learning of Chinese is an excellent opportunity to help children gain cognitive benefits. This is because, unlike most other languages, Chinese stimulates and activates the development of both sides of the brain (Welcome Trust UK, 2003). This is especially true if they learn how to both read and write it.
- Mastering Chinese writing goes far beyond the penmanship required in alphabetic languages, due to the compositional units of the symbols: For anyone who has never learned the language Chinese characters are merely a set of random lines. However, all the components have their own meaning and significance. Children who study Chinese learn to recognize the difference between the sound and substance particles of various characters to establish their meaning and pronunciation. This process stimulates the development of excellent problem solving skills.
Not only does Chinese character writing improve numeracy, it also improves motor skills and spatial awareness. Good spatial awareness is needed to make sure that each character is the same size, no matter how many strokes are required.
Young children get immense pleasure from learning this language and as they grow older they will be grateful for having had access to this immense store of literature, history and art. China is publishing more books than any other country and is producing an enthralling cohort of literature as well as more and more original contributions to scientific, technological and philosophical studies. The writings of Chinese policy makers, administrators, economists and business leaders will increasingly become mainstream, such that ambitious young people in the years ahead will feel intellectually well equipped if they know Chinese.