‘Students of Oriental languages are inquisitive & adventurous’

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‘Students of Oriental languages are inquisitive & adventurous’

04 February 2014

By Francesca Walford

Japanese, Korean and Chinese might appear challenging to learn — but their popularity is not dwindling in the UK.

Michel Hockx, Professor of Chinese at SOAS and Director of the SOAS China Institute, says that despite the huge rise in tuition fees at universities across England, Chinese is the only language for which student numbers in England are increasing.

The increase in interest might on the surface appear surprising given the perceived level of difficulty of learning such languages. “There are virtually no etymological links between Chinese and European languages, so the Chinese words do not sound like, or remind you of anything you know in English, you cannot guess the word,” Hockx says.

On top of that every item of vocabulary has three parts: the spoken word, the meaning of the word, and the character to learn, he adds.

But he has an explanation for the surge in interest. “There is a clear development taking place in China, more foreigners are expected to communicate with them on their terms and in their language, rather than through English,” he says.

The Department of the Languages and Cultures of China and Inner Asia at SOAS, University of London, now runs the largest undergraduate Chinese language programme in the UK, as well as various master’s degree programmes in Chinese Studies.

Hockx believes that Chinese language students have many career options in the commercial world, international organisations, media, government, NGOs, education, translation, and of course academic research.

However he points out that learning the language alone is not enough: it needs to be integrated with learning about Chinese history, culture, and society.

Like Hockx, Dr Barbara Pizziconi, Senior Lecturer in Applied Japanese Linguistics at SOAS, believes that learning Japanese language and the culture go side by side. To understand societal norms, learning the Japanese language is important, she says, as the language contains the honorific system which reflects Japanese hierarchy and society.

“It is not possible to say what gives people a knack for language. There are different kinds of intelligence (logico-mathematical, musical, visual/spatial, interpersonal etc.) but I strongly believe that they all contribute in one way or another to learning and using languages,” she adds.

But overall she believes that those who undertake Oriental languages are the “inquisitive and adventurous types, who like a good challenge”.

Study Asian languages in short sessions and use multiple ways of learning

Her advice on the best way to study Japanese is to do it daily, but in short sessions and to use multiple ways of learning. “Watch videos, read books, write stories, listen to music, but most importantly go out and talk to people,” she says.

However, whilst Chinese might be growing in popularity, it is the Department of the Languages and Cultures of Japan and Korea at SOAS, which has the highest intake.

Despite Japan’s economic recession in recent years, students do not seem to be put off from applying. “This is down to the fact that Japanese popular culture is now globally rooted in youth culture (through manga, anime and other cultural products) and extremely recognisable by those who know very little about Japan,” Pizziconi explains.

Dr Stephen Dodd, Senior Lecturer in Japanese at SOAS, sums it up: “In other words Japan is still cool”.

But whilst it might be popular, similar to Chinese language learning, Japanese is far from easy. “All language study requires a determination to work consistently. But Japanese requires an extra level, students have to master the writing script as well as the spoken language,” Dodd says.

Asia House is hosting free Asian language workshops for young people

Asia House in partnership with the British Council is currently offering free workshops to 18-24-year-olds in a range of Asian languages.

To mark the Lunar New Year, which is celebrated across East Asia, the first workshop took place on Saturday, 1 February and gave students the opportunity to study Japanese, Korean and Chinese.

These workshops are being delivered with the support of SOAS Language Centre at Asia House’s London premises and allow young people to get a taste of all three languages in one afternoon. The next workshop will take place on Saturday, 22 February and students will get to learn Bahasa Indonesia, Thai and Vietnamese.

The Lunar New Year is a major festival in East and Southeast Asia 

The Lunar New Year, which is determined by the lunar calendar, marks the end of the Year of the Year of the Snake and the start of the Year of the Horse. It is major festival predominantly celebrated in China and Hong Kong but also in many South East Asian countries which have large Chinese populations. It is a national holiday when Chinese typically flock to their hometowns to spend time with friends and family, set off fireworks, hold parties, share a special meal and New Year cake.  Dragon and Lion dances are also common and unmarried young people and children receive money in red envelopes from elder married relatives as a symbol of good luck. The 15-day festival started last week and ends this year on 14 February. Koreans and Vietnamese also celebrate their New Year at the same time although their festivals are shorter and they follow different customs. New Year is also celebrated during this period in some parts of Japan.


To hear about what motivates students to study Chinese, Japanese and Korean and what it is really like to learn these languages click here.

Francesca Walford is currently doing an internship at Asia House.