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Getting a language edge
not English, as their ticket to a lucrative career
As overland trade with southern China becomes increasingly viable, more and more students in Chiang Mai are turning to Mandarin Chinese as their second foreign language, away from traditional favourites such as English, Japanese and French.
Chinese language schools and private classes are mushrooming in the northern city. At the same time, Chinese courses at Chiang Mai University and the Rajabhat Institute, Chiang Mai, are attracting increased enrollment as students believe they will have better job opportunities if they can communicate in Chinese.
The Thai government has been supportive of these efforts because Chinese language programmes are consistent with its plans to foster economic and cultural relations with the People’s Republic of China.
The first programme
The first Chinese language programme was established back in 1980 through the Faculty of Humanities at Chiang Mai University (CMU). According to Wantana Yangcharoen, head of CMU’s Chinese division, around ten students enrolled that first year, a number that would increase to about 100 a decade later.
These students studied Chinese either as an elective subject or they took it as minor. “Our students were from a variety of faculties, including medicine, agriculture, engineering, veterinary science and, of course, the humanities,” explains Ms. Wantana.
“This year, due the great demand, there are 400 students enrolled in Chinese. This is the first year that the Chinese division has opened a major in the subject, and we are looking forward to graduating 16 major students over the next four years.”
Actually, laments Archarn Wattana, 25 seats were offered but nine students – mostly from Bangkok – who had passed the university’s entrance exams turned down the offer.
“That is a pity,” Acharn Wattana says. The vacant seats should have been granted to students in the north who passed the quota exams. Unfortunately, the Chinese major project became effective only after those exams,” she says.
Next year, she promises, things will be different as northern students will get a larger allocation of the seats offered in the regional quota exams.
At CMU, the Mandarin Chinese courses consist of beginning Chinese, intermediate Chinese, reading and writing, short stories and advanced Chinese, although no student has as yet reached that level. CMU students study both simplified and traditional Chinese characters to enable them to use the language either in China where the simplified version is used, or in Taiwan, where traditional characters hold sway.
At present, the staff consists of 12 lecturers — four full-time Thai lecturers, four part-time special lecturers (one from Kunming, one from Taiwan and the other two from Thailand) and four Chinese experts under an exchange programme from Yunnan Nationality University in Kunming. There is also a lecturer exchange programme with National Chong Shing University in Taiwan.
The Chinese division has actively supported students finding additional opportunities to practise the language. It has helped organise activities such as Chinese camp at the university, and it has also found opportunities for students to study abroad through the university’s international network.
Last year, for example, 26 students participated in an overseas Chinese summer course in Taiwan that was organised by the Overseas Chinese Association of Taiwan.
Starting in 2005, there are plans to set up a 50-day course for third-year students entitled “Study Chinese in the Motherland Countries.”
The programme aims to give students a working proficiency in four skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Upon graduation, students should be eligible for careers ranging from being a tour guide or interpreter to a teacher or company employee.
Acharn Wattana says she has already seen tangible evidence that many of her former students have been able to make use of their language ability to gain a career advantage. This particularly true of graduates in engineering and food science,” she says.
“They get better jobs more quickly because they can communicate in Chinese, she says. “And these are students who have only studied Chinese as an elective subject, not as their minor.”
Next, says Acharn Wattana, plans are afoot to open a business Chinese course for students aiming to work in companies or to set up their own businesses. After that, there will be a Chinese literature course for those who want to further their study towards a master’s degree.
The one drawback to the current programme thus far, according to Acharn Wattana, concerns students who come with a basic knowledge of Chinese. They tend to find beginning Chinese rather boring, she says. To rectify this problem, the division plans to introduce placement testing, allowing those who qualify to skip the beginning course.
All about employment
Four CMU students minoring in Chinese all see their language skills as enhancing their employment prospects.
“I choose Chinese as minor because I want to go into the import-export business,” says Chin Rattanakul, a 22-year-old student from the Faculty of Humanities. “Mandarin is a language with a bright future in business given China’s huge population and its rapidly growing role in the world marketplace.”
Chin, who took a summer course in Taiwan, seems quite pleased with his proficiency in Chinese. He says the Chinese students he met there could understand about 80 to 90 percent of what he said.
Pornsiri Suangswang, a 21-year-old student also from the Faculty of Humanities, echoes Chin’s faith in the utility of Chinese for doing business in Thailand. “My family has a booming Mandarin language school and I plan on either helping my parents with their business or working for a private company,” Pornsiri says.
Business student Preedaporn Chaimuang, 21, hopes to open her own audit office to serve Chinese clients. Like Chin, she took the summer course in Taiwan and found Thai students to be at the same level as other foreign students in terms of proficiency.
“The big disadvantage is back here in Thailand,” she says. “Here we rarely get the chance to practice Chinese. To maintain fluency it is necessary to use the language regularly.”
Twenty-one-year-old Lek Jaraslertsiri of the Faculty of Economics is making sure he has adequate exposure to Chinese. “I took a summer course in Beijing last year and plan to do the same this year. I also use e-mail to correspond with Chinese friends and strengthen my writing skills,” he explains.
Rajabhat Institute, Chiang Mai
The Rajabhat Institute, Chiang Mai, is also recognised by the public for its Chinese courses. Programme head Acharn Wiraj Toonkaew says that Chinese was first introduced as an elective subject at the institute in 1991. Two years later, the institute offering a bachelor’s degree in education, thereby becoming the first institute in Thailand producing Chinese language teachers.
In 1995, the curriculum was revised to become part of the liberal art programme, and it was revised again in 1998 in order to serve those seeking careers outside of education, such as interpreters or tour guides. As of this year, the programme will go full circle, as the Bachelor of Education returns to meet the growing demand for Chinese teachers.
Over the 12 years of existence of the Rajabhat Chinese programme, enrollment has risen from 10 to 120, and there are plans for further expansion.
“The institute is planning to establish a four-year master’s degree course next year in which students will study two years in Chiang Mai and another two years at Yunnan Normal University in Kunming,”Acharn Wiraj says.
The expansion has not been problem-free, however, he says. While the government has been supportive, he says more funds are needed for hiring more Chinese lecturers. At present, the Chinese programme has five Thai lecturers and two Chinese lecturers.
All lecturers at Rajabhat currently have bachelor’s degrees. Two, including Acharn Wiraj, are studying for their master’s degrees in China with help from the Technical and Economic Cooperation Department.
Rajabhat Chiang Mai also has a one-year lecturer exchange programme with Beijing Foreign Language University in which two Thai lecturers teach Thai in Beijing and two Chinese lecturers teach in Chiang Mai.
Students in the programme study traditional characters for the first year and simplified characters in the final three years.
Like the lecturers, students have opportunities for exchanges with Chinese universities under a programme that began in 2001. Thus far, three universities have been involved, including Guangxi University, Guangxi Normal University and Guangxi Nationalities University in China.
Last year, 26 Thai students studied in China and 19 Chinese students studied at Rajabhat Chiang Mai. The Thai students reportedly had some problems adjusting to the Chinese environment, particularly such as sharing a dormitory room with as many as seven roommates.
Evaluations are underway and improvements should be implemented this year prior to sending a new batch of Thai students, this time to Yunnan Normal University in Kunming, Acharn Wiraj says.
Meanwhile, six fourth-year students have just had a very special experience acting as interpreters for Chinese participants at the Apec meeting that was held in Chiang Mai last month.
Archarn Wiraj says that most of the programme’s graduates get jobs as lecturers at other Rajabhat Institutes and other universities while some work in government agencies, private companies as interpreters.
Sudarat Chomkun, a 20-year-old student in the Faculty of Humanities, has her eye on a career in the tourist industry. “Last year I had a chance to work as a ground service trainee for Bangkok Airways for three months. It was good to be able to practise my Chinese with passengers for three months.
“Since the tourist business is my major, I would like the institute to conduct training courses on business Chinese for students,” Sudarat suggests.
Room for improvement
Assoc Prof Zhang Longhu, an expert from Beijing Foreign Language University, has been teaching at Rajabaht Chiang Mai for one year. “Having taught foreign students for 40 years,” he observes, “Thai students are in between their Western and Japanese counterparts. Western students are good at expressing themselves while the Japanese students are rather quiet, but they work hard. Thai students, too, are diligent, and they are not as shy about giving their comments in class.
“Thai students have better speaking skills than writing skills,” he adds. “This may be because it is so difficult to remember the Chinese characters.”
Interestingly, Assoc Prof Zhang believes that students should not study traditional Chinese characters because they are boring and of limited use. The old style will no longer be used in China, he says.
He has a long list of improvements that he thinks should be made to bring the teaching and learning of Chinese up to standard.
“First, textbooks in Thailand are out of date,” he says. “There are new textbooks in China, and Thai lecturers should adopt them if it is possible to do so.
“Thai students also study too many subjects apart from Mandarin,” he asserts. “In China, students study only two subjects a year. At the very least, beginning Chinese needs to be increased from three hours a week to four.”
He also remarks that while the Thai government has supported the study of Chinese to some extent, a serious policy needs to be implemented. There are not enough Chinese teachers in Thailand to serve primary and secondary schools, and the country should urgently produce more qualified teachers, he says. The number of schools teaching Mandarin should be limited as well in order to control the quality and provide a proper balance with numbers of teachers.
As for his own teaching, Assoc Prof Zhang also bemoans the difficulty in finding appropriate Chinese reading material, particularly newspapers.
“It is difficult for Thai students to study by using a Chinese newspaper, which is a good source of information. Chinese newspapers here use traditional Chinese characters which are difficult to understand. The column arrangement is opposite from that in China, where it is arranged from left to right.
“Consequently, we are not able to make the most of Chinese newspapers in my class. Improvements are clearly needed,” he says.
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Last modified: September 15, 2003