To anyone brought up with the Roman alphabet, the prospect of learning Mandarin — with 6,000 written characters and four oral tones — might at first sight seem a mite daunting. Brits are notoriously poor linguists but clearly a nation that revels in a challenge.
According to a new study by the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and the University of Stirling, in central Scotland, the number of Mandarin students at U.K. universities has almost doubled in the past decade. By contrast easy continental languages are in sharp decline with French undergrads down a third and German students plummeting by more than two-thirds.
The reason for the shift is unclear. It could be an Olympic side-effect, a spin-off from all those Zhang Yimou films or perhaps the widely held belief that Chinese speakers are on the verge of inheriting the Earth. In terms of the volume of characters to be learned, Arabic, Hebrew and Russian are a comparative doddle. To read a Chinese newspaper, you need to know 2,000 pictograms. But hey, it is not impossible. More than a billion people know the basics. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008