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Chinese language winning popularity in UN — and globally

FOR many foreigners, learning Chinese may seem like an impossibly difficult task. But according to Yong Ho, an award-winning Chinese-language teacher with the United Nations, finding enjoyable ways to use the language is vital to learning.

The Chinese-language program at the UN that offers both regular Chinese-language courses and specialized courses on speaking and reading, as well as topics like calligraphy, to UN staff for free has proven to be very popular. There are three semesters each year and about 200 students register each semester.

“Interest in learning Chinese is growing worldwide. Since 2002, when I joined the program, enrollment has more than doubled,” Ho says.

Behind the increasing interest in Chinese lies China’s growing visibility and influence. What happens on the world stage affects what people think of the Chinese language inside the UN, so UN staff are getting more interested in the language, according to Ho.

Statistics cited by Ho shows that it can take as many as 2,200 hours of language training to become proficient in Chinese, compared with only about 600 hours for French or Spanish. During the long hours of study, Ho recommends making learning fun.

“We encourage our teachers to make friends with students,” says Ho. “Our teachers often invite students to try Chinese food at Chinatown or see some Chinese shows, to give them a taste of Chinese culture.”

Kenneth from Norway, who works with the UN’s statistics division, has been studying for a year in the organization’s Chinese-language program.

“I really like studying Chinese. It is challenging but at the same time, it is rewarding. I am glad to see that I am able to speak Chinese more fluently day by day,” says Kenneth, who also goes by the Chinese name “Kening.”

“Here at the UN, we have a nice language program, especially the Chinese program, which is very good. We have very good teachers that help us improve our Chinese. At the same time, they introduce Chinese culture, Chinese history and Chinese news, so we can better understand China and everything that is going on in China,” says Kenneth.

Romantic encounter

In addition to these courses, the UN Chinese-language program offers a three-week summer course at Nanjing University in east China’s Jiangsu province. The program, which is sponsored by the Chinese authorities, has been well received over its decade of history. In fact, for his labors, last year Ho earned his second UN21 Award, an award presented to UN staff members who demonstrate hard work and innovation.

The program not only provides opportunities to learn the language but also a chance to meet your better half.

“An American student has been learning Chinese with us for 15 years. He knows by heart each dynasty and each emperor in Chinese history. He loves Chinese so much that he even fell in love with his Chinese teacher. They got married later,” says Ho. “I think it is really romantic.”

As one of the official languages in the United Nations, the Chinese language was celebrated with a Chinese Language Day on April 20 this year.

First established in 2010 by UNESCO as part of a campaign to promote multilingualism and cultural diversity, the celebration is held around the same time in April each year on Guyu, or literally “Rain of Millet,” which is the sixth of the 24 solar terms created by the ancient Chinese to carry out agricultural activities. The term is traditionally a time of tribute to Cangjie — a mythical figure who is credited with having invented Chinese characters about 5,000 years ago.

This year’s celebrations included speeches, an art exhibition and a gala evening.

During the gala evening, students performed the Xiao Pingguo — or “Little Apple” — dance, a popular number that has taken the Chinese Internet by storm.

One of the oldest written languages in the world, archeological evidence indicates that Chinese characters were being used at least 4,000 years ago.

Today, Chinese is spoken by over one billion people. Although several thousand dialects of Chinese are spoken around the country, Putonghua — also known as Mandarin — can be understood by an estimated 95 percent of the population.

According to Kenneth, Chinese is becoming increasingly important in many aspects of life, both within the UN and outside the organization.

“And it is really cool when I order food using Chinese in a Chinese restaurant. The waiters are very surprised. You should see their faces,” says Kenneth proudly.


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