KUPFER, Peter: Eloquent but Blind – The Problem of Reading Proficiency in Chinese as a Foreign Language
In language policies like in her rapid political, economic and social development China has undergone remarkable changes recently. Since the 1980s not only the exchange of information with the rest of the world in all fields has expanded in an extraordinary manner, but also the Chinese language itself has achieved high international recognition and upgraded position among the world languages. On the one hand the acquisition of foreign languages has become a matter of course among the younger generation in China. On the other hand Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language (TCFL) has unfolded a large range of activities and research projects while establishing a complete network of institutions. Especially since the beginning of the new millennium the "Chinese fever" (Hànyŭ-rè) is spreading around the world – with the active support of government and press in China. According to the latest statistics there are 30 million learners of Chinese in the world, and the number is expected to increase to 100 million in 2007.
Despite of these impressive developments, there are three main problems concerning the position of the Chinese language and TCFL on a global scale:
- Chinese as a "hermetic" language: Although Chinese is the language with by far most native speakers – three times more than English – in the world, compared with all other big languages and in spite of the idealized and overestimated "Chinese fever", it still plays only an insignificant role as a foreign language – 30 million learners compared with 1.3 billion native speakers amounts to only 2.3 percent. It is said that Chinese is going to become the most frequent language in the internet. But this is true only with regard to the big population of Chinese native speakers using the internet. There are hardly any non-native speakers using the Chinese language in their correspondance with Chinese or other partners.
- Chinese as a highly demanding language: Fortunately the Chinese language has almost lost its exotic aura in the rest of the world, and learning Chinese nowadays is mostly motivated by career considerations. The chances for one or two years' intensive language studies in China are better than ever before. It is no longer unusual for foreigners in Beijing or Shanghai to speak Chinese in their daily lives. The prominent problem today is, that thousands master colloquial Chinese on the elementary level, but only very few can afford to spend more years of study to reach a higher or even professional level. Besides the time and energy required for this, there are manifold reasons (background knowledge, traditions, culture, history, mentality etc.) for this specific phenomenon in TCFL, which could be characterized as "pyramid effect". A well-known example of how difficult it is to reach the top of the pyramid is the fact that for certain bilateral occasions it is always difficult to find professional non-Chinese translators and interpreters in almost any country of the world.
- The exclusiveness of Chinese script: The adaptation of the communicative approach in Chinese language teaching since the 1980s has focussed on oral skills. Importance to reading and writing skills is still mainly attached by traditional Chinese studies in the fields of literature and historical research, whereas practical business communication and commercial und technical translation are mostly neglected. Non-Chinese personal handling Chinese texts and writing business letters or e-mails in Chinese is still extremely rare in China's offices. Thousands of foreign residents in China are not even able to read simple messages written in Chinese. They spend a considerable part of their lives in complete or semi-illiteracy and depend on help even in simple daily situations.
The extreme complexity of the Chinese writing system has separated the traditions of oral and written language for over 2000 years – and still does so in TCFL. During the past more than twenty years the promotion of oral skills in Chinese has shown striking results. At the same time the long neglect of a systematic and sustainable instruction in reading and writing skills becomes more and more evident as the professional demands in the international communication with China are increasing constantly in today's globalized world.
Therefore urgent measures have to be taken to develop sinographemic didactics as an integrated discipline of TCFL. For this purpose basic research has to be initiated in the following fields:
- statistical and analytical investigation of the systematism of Chinese script for TCFL purposes,
- methods and types of processing different kinds of Chinese texts by adult learners with non-Chinese educational backgrounds, including such questions as the correspondence between graphics, phonics and semantics, phonological mediation and oralisation of reading, character, word or phrase decoding, use of redundancy, means of (re)constructing meaning and anticipation etc.,
- the role of influences and differences within cultural and educational traditions, background knowledge and previous information, reading experience and automaticity in decoding etc.,
- physical conditions, like brain activities, eye movement, processing of faulty texts or non- standard script etc.
- Comprehensive research work of this kind could help to outline didactic concepts for the development of approaches to a highly efficient acquisition of Chinese characters and to target oriented reading strategies in TCFL which include
- strategies of distinguishing between different kinds of texts and between the different degrees of importance of segments of a given text,
- capability of choosing adequate strategies in accordance with the specific features of different texts,
- methods of accelerating of reading speed,
- strategies of cursory and selective reading and extracting key information,
- qualification to correctly assess the relationships between the sender of a text, its receiver and the text itself and translation competence,
- general meta-procedure strategies: analysis of the structure of texts at micro and macro levels, i.e. distinguishing between information at the graphic code and text levels,
- activation of background knowledge relevant to the subject of a given text,
- management of large text quantities.