Context statement

The place of the Chinese language and culture in Australia and the world

China's official language is Modern Standard Chinese, or Putonghua (the common or shared language) in Chinese. The language is also referred to as Hanyu, the spoken language of the Han people, or Zhongwen, the written language of China. In Taiwan it is more usually called Huayu (Hwayu), the spoken language of people of Chinese ethnicity. This term is also used in Singapore.

A number of dialects remain in active use. In addition, the character system has undergone significant evolution, standardisation and simplification over time. In recent times, the need to create Chinese language texts in digital format has resulted in an international effort to standardise character forms and attribute a Unicode to each form so that computer operating systems internationally can generate and reproduce Chinese texts in both simplified and traditional/full-form characters. It is not common for new characters to be created. In contemporary overseas Chinese media, texts are commonly in either simplified or traditional/full-form characters, reflecting the diverse histories and preferences of these communities.

Communities of Chinese speakers are characterised by linguistic, cultural and geographic diversity and can be found in almost every country of the world. Many of these communities have a long tradition, and they are particularly strong on the Pacific coast of Canada and the USA, and in South-East Asia, Australia and some European countries. The history of the Chinese community in Australia extends back to the mid-1800s, and patterns of migration in recent decades have seen rapid growth in Australia’s Chinese population.

Current links between Australia and China are characterised by bilateral relationships in trade and investment, as well as educational exchanges, and research and development in science and technology. The movement of people and ideas, as well as economic, cultural and educational exchange, adds to the richness and complexity of this relationship.

The place of the Chinese language in Australian education

Chinese has been taught in Australian schools since the 1950s, and experienced rapid growth in the 1980s as China undertook a policy of open-door and economic reform. Chinese has always been taught as an additional language in Australia, but schools are now catering to increasingly varied cohorts of Chinese language learners, including overseas-born Chinese speakers. The population of Chinese teachers has also changed, with growing numbers of teachers from the People’s Republic of China now teaching in Australian schools.

Chinese is recognised as an important language for young Australians to learn as Australia progresses towards a future of increased trade and engagement with Asia.

The nature of Chinese language learning

For the purposes of the Australian Curriculum: Languages, ‘Chinese’ refers to Modern Standard Chinese, Pinyin Romanisation and simplified characters. Given the ongoing use of both forms of Chinese characters (simplified and full form) in the media, in education and in environmental print (advertisements and shop signs), some knowledge or awareness of both systems is an advantage, for Chinese speakers and Chinese learners alike. Although both writing systems and the range of dialects should be recognised in any Chinese language curriculum, the priority in education is Modern Standard Chinese and simplified characters as the internationally recognised ‘official form’ of Chinese.

English and Chinese have very different grammatical and vocabulary systems. The Chinese spoken language is characterised by a high number of homophones — tone-syllables that are used to represent more than one morpheme — each of which has its own particular character. The range of syllables in Chinese, while limited in comparison to English, does include some sounds unfamiliar to English speakers. The task of learning Chinese can be best addressed by a clear separation between learning to interact orally, supported by print materials in Pinyin, and learning to read and write, supported by texts and resources in characters.

Chinese characters are logographs composed of a number of components organised into a particular sequence within a square, parts of which are likely to suggest the sound and meaning of the whole character. Each character is a morpheme-syllable — it represents a syllable of sound and a unit of meaning. There are 3500 frequently used characters which are learnt by children in primary school in China. These characters are composed of approximately 500 distinct components which are used with varying degrees of frequency, and in different locations and for different functions. Literacy development (in terms of learning to read and write, and especially to map known oral vocabulary onto the appropriate written forms) is a time-consuming and challenging task. Additional characteristics of Chinese writing are that texts in Chinese characters do not display word-level spacing and texts may be written vertically and read from right to left down the page.

The Chinese spoken language is composed of approximately 400 syllables which may be used with one of four tones to create a total of approximately 1200 tone-syllables. Different systems have been developed to reproduce the sounds of the Chinese language using the Roman alphabet to assist learners who are already familiar with the Roman alphabet. Today the Pinyin system has international recognition as the principal means of representing the sounds of Chinese in alphabetic form. This system assists students of many language backgrounds to learn the correct sounds of Putonghua, and is an efficient means of text input when creating texts in characters using digital media. It is important to note that Pinyin is not recognised as a valid alternative to written expression in characters, as its readability is limited.

The diversity of learners of Chinese

Three pathways have been developed for Chinese, to cater to the three main cohorts of learners of Chinese in Australian schools. The Second Language Learner Pathway caters for students learning Chinese as a second or additional language. The Background Language Learner Pathway has been developed for students who have exposure to Chinese language and culture, and who may engage in some active but predominantly receptive use of Chinese at home. The First Language Learner Pathway caters for students who have had their primary socialisation as well as initial literacy development and primary schooling in Chinese, and who use Chinese at home. Schools will make decisions about which pathway best serves their students’ needs, and teachers will use the pathways to cater for all learners by making any appropriate adjustments to differentiate learning experiences for their students.

Back to top