The American linguistics delegation1Members of the delegation were Chin-chuan Cheng, University of Illinois; Charles A. Ferguson, Stanford University; Anne FitzGerald, Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China; Victoria Fromkin, University of California, Los Angeles; William Labov, University of Pennsylvania; Anatole Lyovin, University of Hawaii; Winfred P. Lehmann, University of Texas; John B. Lum, National Institute of Education; Frederick W. Mote, Princeton University; Jerry Norman, University of Washington; Howard E. Sollenberger, Foreign Service Institute; James J. Wrenn, Brown University. visited the People’s Republic of China from October 16, 1974, to November 13, 1974, with the principal aim of learning about language and linguistics in contemporary China. Specifically, this meant linguistic and sociolinguistic research; language planning; lexicography; phonetic research; and the teaching of Chinese, English, and other languages. The delegation was also returning the visit of its counterpart Chinese delegation to the United States the previous year.2See Linguistic Reporter 15, no. 9 (December 1973); Linguistic Reporter 16, no. 4 (April 1974); Linguistic Reporter 16, no. 5 (May 1974). For a description of this program of visits between the United States and China, see Anne Keatley and Albert Feuerwerker, “Scholarly Exchange with the People’s Republic of China,” Items 27, no. 3 (September 1973): 27–29.
The backgrounds and expertise of its members gave the linguistics delegation some decided advantages. Most of the members are specialists on China, so the group’s itinerary had been decided largely on the basis of its own requests to the Chinese. Seven of the twelve delegation members could speak Chinese and three had lived in China just prior to the establishment of the present regime in 1949. The delegation chairman was Winfred P. Lehmann, University of Texas, who is past president of the Linguistic Society of America and an internationally known scholar in Indo-European and historical linguistics. The delegation included specialists in Chinese studies (phonology, dialectology, historical linguistics, lexicography, and language teaching) as well as experts in linguistic theory, sociolinguistics, bilingual education, and language planning.“What is more, all of us found the realities of linguistics and language study so far removed from our own that we were often at a loss for the right questions to ask in order to elicit information from our hosts.”
The visit made a profound impression on the whole delegation. Each of us found his or her values and expectations questioned; each came back with new thoughts about the place of linguistics and the language sciences in contemporary society. For several of us who were new to China, the encounter with the unimagined differences of this unfamiliar culture was quite striking. “Fantastic” and “marvelous” seemed to us to be appropriate adjectives as we viewed ancient palaces and gardens, modern factories, irrigation systems, and trade fairs; as we ate remarkably varied and delicious foods, experienced unexpected music, art forms, and acrobatics; and as we tried to bridge the cultural gap with our Chinese counterparts in universities, schools, and special institutions. Others were impressed by changes in the China they had known: food, clothing, and medical services for all; an improved status for women; universal primary education; and uniformity in culture and ideology combined with a high degree of social mobilization and sense of national purpose. What is more, all of us found the realities of linguistics and language study so far removed from our own that we were often at a loss for the right questions to ask in order to elicit information from our hosts.
Linguistics as a social science or independent scholarly discipline does not exist as such in the People’s Republic; there are no courses in it, no professional organizations, no discussion of linguistic theory as an intellectual enterprise, no obvious points of contact with the field in other countries. Yet there are Chinese linguists whose earlier published works in Chinese dialectology, research on minority languages, and sophisticated historical study are all known outside China. The explanation is that linguistics, like many other disciplines, now exists in the People’s Republic of China only to “serve the people” and to “help in socialist construction.” Lacking the high priority of such fields as nuclear physics, which are allotted resources for basic research, linguistic work is always tied to the solution of the nation’s language problems. The linguists we met were all working in this context, engaged in the processes of language reform or language teaching or in the interpretation of ancient texts important for an understanding of Chinese history.
The delegation spent about a third of its time in Peking, but also visited Lin Xian, Zhengzhou, Xian, Yanan, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Guangzhou (Canton). In most of these cities, we visited educational institutions. Altogether, we saw the work of three general universities, three teachers’ universities, three language institutes (including the Institute of Nationalities concerned with minority languages), three secondary schools, three primary schools, two deaf-mute schools, one children’s palace, and seven museums. We talked with teachers, students, “leading members” of revolutionary committees, and museum guides; we observed classrooms, laboratories, museums, and playgrounds. Most of the visits were highly programmed, but often our hosts proved flexible in making new arrangements. Sometimes we had opportunities for unplanned encounters with students, workers, and others outside the educational system.
The pattern of the visits was much like that of earlier delegations. While we visited many of the same tourist points and the same educational institutions as had other delegations, we also had several long and profitable sessions with Chinese scholars in universities and elsewhere during which we were able to speak directly about some of our research concerns. In addition, we had frequent opportunities to compare official language policies with actual language behavior both in and out of the classroom.“Some of us were excited to see recent publications in Uighur or Mongolian, while others wanted to pursue the methodology of sociolinguistic dialect study.”
Our fields of interest were so varied that it was natural that one person could find the Shanghai Children’s Palace a “curriculum specialist’s dream,” while another would be more fascinated by the use of acupuncture therapy in deaf-mute schools. Some of us were excited to see recent publications in Uighur or Mongolian, while others wanted to pursue the methodology of sociolinguistic dialect study. Regardless of specialty, however, I think that at least three areas of activity impressed all of us and left their mark on our thinking: the scope and success of language planning, the nature of research on minority nationalities, and the position of English and other foreign languages.
National language planning
Language reform receives little attention in the national planning of most countries, hardly, if ever appearing in five-year plans or as a line item in governmental budgets. In China, on the other hand, the development of a viable, standardized national language for the communication needs of the country is given considerable visibility, and the efforts of the Language Reform Committee have the ultimate backing of Chairman Mao, the Communist Party, and the State Council. We were fortunate enough to have several hours of presentations and discussion with Ye Lai-shi and the research staff of the Language Reform Committee in Peking. We asked questions about language reform wherever we went and we observed language use around us.
Hundreds of officially promulgated simplified characters (each having fewer strokes than the older form) are now in regular use. Putonghua (common speech) is spreading rapidly among the more than 30 per cent of the population who speak language varieties that are not mutually intelligible with putonghua. Romanized spelling is slowly being extended to additional uses, and progress is being made toward the final, long-term goal of replacing the traditional as well as the simplified characters. There is no near parallel to this massive planned language change taking place anywhere else in the world. If Chinese linguists wished to study the behavioral changes as they occur and were free to do so, their vast natural laboratory of language use could make profound contributions to an understanding of the processes of standardization, language shift, dialect and register variation, and language planning. In any case, we may hope that the Chinese linguists’ use-oriented studies of dialect convergence will provide interesting data for sociolinguists outside China to ponder and speculate about. Language planners from other countries could learn much from China’s experience.
In accordance with Marxism–Leninism–Mao Tsetung Thought and Stalin’s 1950 article on language, the People’s Republic of China allocates certain public functions to minority languages. Thus, for example, Chinese currency has four languages in addition to Chinese printed on it, and publications such as newspapers and school books appear in an even larger number of languages. In line with this policy, highly competent linguistic research in minority languages was in evidence, carried out in relation to language teaching and the creation and reform of orthographies.
Of broader social science interest was research on the determination of nationality status. Fei Xiao-tong, known internationally as a distinguished anthropologist, explained in some detail the problems of investigating the degree of linguistic and cultural distinctiveness, ethnic awareness, and size of population, which entitle a group to be designated a nationality. Fifty-four such nationalities have been officially recognized in the People’s Republic. Comparison of this nationality research with current American research on ethnicity could be highly instructive if a scholarly exchange were possible. Unfortunately, we were unable to view the nationality policies on language in action since we had no chance to visit the minority areas where they are carried out.
The English language in China“We found it difficult to talk about the methods of teaching English or about applied linguistics in foreign language instruction.”
English is by far the foreign language most in evidence in China. It is taught in many primary schools, most urban secondary schools, in universities, and in language institutes. In addition, English lessons are broadcast on the radio and printed in magazines, and English is the foreign language most often used in translations on signs and in documents shown to or used by foreigners. English teachers, especially at the higher levels, speak excellent English and, in some places, have considerable sophistication in pedagogical practice (e.g., using the International Phonetic Alphabet for teaching pronunciation). Other foreign languages, European and Asian, are taught to a lesser extent. We noted that Russian instruction seems on the decline, while Japanese shows signs of being on the increase. In spite of all this, we found it difficult to talk about the methods of teaching English or about applied linguistics in foreign language instruction.
In the United States, foreign languages are studied in part to give access to a different culture and way of life. Teaching materials, therefore, are expected to be as genuinely foreign as possible, based on actual language use in the countries where the language is spoken. In China, on the other hand, foreign languages are studied as weapons in the revolutionary struggle and the teaching materials for at least the first three years are based on life and thought in China, not in the foreign country. The student of English learns to talk about the Chinese countryside and factories, to sing songs in honor of Chairman Mao and the Party. The content of beginning English courses may even be checked for appropriateness by monolingual Chinese workers and peasants. The Chinese student of English learns how to talk to foreign visitors about his own country; only the advanced student is exposed to texts from foreign countries—and then with political interpretation and commentary.
When these fundamental differences in approach finally became very clear in a long discussion with English teachers and students one evening in Shanghai, we had something to think about. Is it possible that in the long run the advantages of higher motivation, greater community support, and familiarity of content in the early stages of foreign language study payoff in learning to use the language—in spite of inevitable linguistic, cultural, and political distortions?
Results of the visit
Chinese and Americans seem to get along easily and well in personal interactions. To all members of the delegation, the value of increased contacts was clear. The difficulties of genuine professional exchange of people and publications, however, are great, given the enormous differences between the two societies and the slow pace of normalization in political relations between them. Nevertheless, our visit was not without some promising outcomes. Most concrete was the agreement to publish in the Journal of Chinese Linguistics3Edited by William S-Y. Wang, University of California, Berkeley. speeches to our delegation on the teaching of Chinese and on recent changes in the Chinese language made by Lü Bi-song and Mao Cheng-dong, of the Peking Language Institute. In addition, the delegation left with our Chinese hosts some specific recommendations for cooperation in producing bilingual dictionaries.
The total impact of the China visit on the linguists and language specialists of the delegation is difficult to assess. In the area of research and teaching in linguistics and related fields, it was the confrontation of two opposed models of the social sciences which probably made the deepest impression. American linguistics is primarily theory-oriented. The application of linguistic expertise to the language problems of our society tends to be incidental and nonprestigious. Chinese scholarly concern with language, in contrast, is so completely problem-oriented and politicized that linguistic theory as such is incidental and nonprestigious. My own reaction is to ask whether there could not be a third model somewhere between the two.
The author is professor of linguistics at Stanford University and a member and former chairman of the Council’s Committee on Sociolinguistics. He was a member of the American linguistics delegation which visited China under the program of the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China, which is cosponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Social Science Research Council. A detailed account of the visit of the linguistics delegation, jointly written by the whole delegation and edited by W. P. Lehmann, is in press, to appear under the title Language and Linguistics in China (University of Texas Press). Brief accounts of the visit by Messrs. Lehmann and Ferguson appear in the March (Lehmann) and April (Ferguson) issues of the Linguistic Reporter, published by the Center for Applied Linguistics, Arlington, Virginia.
Charles A. Ferguson (1921–1998) was an American linguist most well-known for his work on diglossia, defined in his influential 1959 article of the same name. He founded and helped found many institutions that studied language and linguistics, beginning in 1959 with the Center for Applied Linguistics. He would also establish Stanford University’s Department of Linguistics in 1966, where he taught until his death. As one of the founders of the field of sociolinguistics, Ferguson was part of the SSRC’s Committee on Sociolinguistics (1963–1979), serving as its chairman from 1963 to 1969, and participating as a committee member throughout its duration.
This essay originally appeared in Items Vol. 29, No. 1 in March 1975. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.