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Politics and the Language of Discourse June 27, 2007

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Academically Speaking.
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Some trivia that came up while easing into my duties as transient COO (that’s “child-of-owner”, in case anyone begins to think I’ve suddenly hit it big):

Chinese schools in the Philippines naturally teach Mandarin as part of their curricula. Now, while it’s obvious that Mandarin is spoken practically the same way wherever it is taught, it’s less known that reading the language is a little tricky. This is because there are two schools of thought that prevail where this is concerned: one side holds that the language should be taught using the “traditional”, perhaps harder to learn, characters often associated with Chinese in general; the other, for their part, favors using a “simplified” version of these characters, which could be argued to be a more progressive approach. Cast in this light, the issue comes across as little more than the usual ivory tower debate that rages in academic circles. Yet the fact of the matter is that the difference between these schools of thought has little to do with opinions on pedagogy. It’s the politics, stupid.

This is easy to see when the proponents behind either side are unmasked. The “keep with traditional” argument stems from Taiwan, while the “reduce and simplify” mantra emanates from mainland China. The former approach has held sway for many years now, but in recent years the latter has been gaining ground. Why the change? Simple: introducing Mandarin to future generations in what is for all intents and purposes a practically new alphabet makes reading older texts written in the traditional alphabet difficult, if not downright impossible. Although making reading harder to do in the future might seem odd, it does make sense when the reading in question involves the history of a nation whose identity and leadership remain a bone of contention.

Of course, it’s easy to tell whose influence (China or Taiwan) holds sway in a country just by looking at the type of Mandarin characters being used in its Chinese schools. Singapore, for instance, purportedly has strong ties to the mainland, and as such have adopted the simplified character set much earlier than many countries. The Philippines, on the other hand, betrays a strong Taiwanese influence as Chinese schools still adhere to the traditional characters, although adoption of the simplified set is ever so slowly taking place. And that is probably the inevitable conclusion: in the end, it’s unlikely that a billion people will be trumped by a tiny island, no matter who their friends are.

I don’t speak a lick of Mandarin, and the only Chinese characters I can read are the few I remember from learning some kanji while taking up Japanese, so I presume that this is all news to those similarly linguistically challenged. But I buy it. Not only do I have no reason to doubt the persons who cared to share these insights, it’s hard to deny that it all makes an incredible amount of sense.

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