While increasing numbers of foreign students grapple with the challenges of learning Chinese putonghua, or Mandarin, a senior official has said at least 40 per cent of China's own population is unable to communicate in the country's official language.
A national survey released in 2004 found that only 53 per cent of the country's 1.3 billion people could speak putonghua, said Yuan Zhongrui, director of the putonghua popularization department under the Ministry of Education.
He told China Daily after a ministry press briefing yesterday that although progress has been made in recent years because of government popularization efforts, "at least 40 per cent of Chinese are still unable to speak standard Chinese".
He said people who cannot speak putonghua are mainly those with "little education," or "the illiterate," and most of them are rural residents.
In contrast to the low domestic popularization rate, the language is becoming increasingly popular overseas.
Ministry figures show that about 30 million people are learning putonghua overseas, and the number is growing.
Yuan attributed the low rate of domestic putonghua speakers to the wide variety of Chinese dialects. About 80 languages and major dialects are currently in use in China, and putonghua is based on the dialect used in North China.
"Without a common language people are unable to understand each other. This has become an obstacle to China's social and economic development," Yuan said.
China started to promote putonghua in 1956 and urged that it must be used nationwide during public activities such as meetings, school teaching or media broadcasting. Since 1998, the third week of each September has been designated as the "Putonghua Popularization Week".
This year's week will start on Sunday, during which various activities such as language contests and art performances will be held across the country to promote the language, the ministry said.
However, Yuan said the ministry has noted the argument from the public that the wide use of putonghua may kill dialects and folk culture in some regions.
He reiterated that the use of putonghua is not in conflict with the existence of dialects, saying that people can use dialects in daily private life, such as when communicating within their families.
He joked that once he received a phone call from Central China's Henan Province, asking him whether putonghua should be spoken at farmers' markets.
"He told me he was charged more because he didn't speak the dialect. I simply told him to speak the dialect that would save him money."
Source: China Daily