Getting into characters

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 March, 2012, 12:00am


I remember being surprised, about eight years ago, when the boss of the research agency I worked for suggested that my colleagues and I took Putonghua lessons. At the time, almost nobody in Mumbai thought of anything beyond French or the occasional other European language lesson.

Alliance Francaise used to overflow with people of all ages wanting to parler while the Goethe-Institut had the odd student wanting German lessons to supplement those they had had at college. The early 2000s saw a mild interest in Japanese, but that was short-lived.

With the rise in trade between China and India, interest in Putonghua has surged. A recent article in The Economic Times said almost three quarters of the 1.25 million Indians who visited the mainland in the first three months of last year went for business, and during the past few years newspapers have been full of articles about Mumbai businessmen learning to say ni hao (and more, I assume). But that's not surprising.

What is surprising is that last year the Central Board of Secondary Education (one of India's main education boards) introduced Putonghua as an optional language from Year Six (children aged about 11) 'in view of China emerging as one of the major global economies and Mandarin being spoken by a large population of the world'.

Apparently it's never too early to start, but the project has not been as successful as hoped because of a shortage of qualified teachers in India. In the last academic year, students who took the class were also asked to take private lessons at home. Now there is talk about a tie-up with the Hanban Institute, affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education, to train Indian teachers in the language. Perhaps this will create a generation of students who will leave school speaking Putonghua and be enthusiastic about all things Chinese.

On the other side of the coin, Peking University last year launched a programme to train more than 60 Chinese students in Sanskrit, so they could translate ancient Buddhist scriptures found in Tibet and elsewhere. The university website says the Sanskrit training programme has come almost two millennia after this classical language came to China. It was also interesting to learn that the Indologist who brought the translation programme into being, Ji Xianlin, was awarded one of India's highest civilian honours, the Padma Bhushan, just before he passed away a few years ago.

I wonder if all this means India is set to see a rash of language institutes offering 'speak Putonghua in 30 days' courses. This may not be such a bad thing, given that it is such a tough language to learn.