Panama moves toward compulsory Mandarin in schools

A bill that would make the teaching of Mandarin compulsory in all schools in Panama has passed the first of three readings in the Panamanian National Assembly.

In looking for details on this, I found a document on the Panamanian National Assembly’s Web site from September 5, 2005: Que Establece la Enseñanza Obligatoria del Idioma Mandarín, en los Centros Educativos Oficiales y Particulares del Primer y Segundo Nivel de Enseñanza y Se Dictan Otras Disposiciones (PDF).

If that represents the draft that was passed yesterday, here is a quote that may provide important information:

El Ministerio de Educación establecerá la carga horaria necesaria, que garantice el aprendizaje efectivo del idioma desde los primeros niveles de enseñanza, lo cual implica que el estudiante que culmina el bachillerato pueda comunicarse verbalmente y por escrito en mandarín. (emphasis added)

So this isn’t just for spoken Mandarin. Students who gain a bachillerato would be expected to be able to not only speak but also write Mandarin. (Can someone help clarify just what level a bachillerato represents?)

As much as I would like for more people around the world to learn Mandarin, it’s necessary to be blunt here: If the legislators and educators of Panama expect all of that country’s students to achieve literacy in Mandarin through Chinese characters, they are not only living in a fantasy world but also setting up what will certainly be a monumental and expensive failure. If this means, as it probably does, literacy in Chinese characters, the students of Panama have a whole world of frustration waiting for them.

Certainly some students will succeed. But the percent who do will never make it into double digits. Moreover, requiring Mandarin for everyone is not practical but a massive overestimation of the need for Panamanians to be able to communicate in Mandarin. I do not say that is how things ought to be, just that that is how they are … and how they will remain for many years to come. From a practical point of view, which is what legislators ought to be taking when imposing universal requirements, having a high level of English matters much, much more than having a high level of Mandarin, though certainly programs need to be widely available to provide students with the choice to learn Mandarin.

For another approach to the question of achieving literacy in Mandarin, let’s look at the case of Singapore. The majority of those in the city-state are ethnic Chinese, many of whom are native speakers of various Sinitic languages. There’s no shortage of money for education; and there’s no shortage of Mandarin classes or teachers. Official statistics there state that in the year 2000:

  • 82.2 percent of the literate ethnic Chinese population was literate in at least Mandarin
  • 0.7 percent of the literate ethnic Indian population was literate in at least Mandarin
  • 0.3 percent of the literate ethnic Malay population was literate in at least Mandarin

If nearly 20 percent of Singapore’s literate ethnic Chinese population is not literate in Mandarin, and less than 1 percent of the literate ethnic Malay and Indian populations is literate in Mandarin, what chance does Panama think it has of having this succeed with its own decidedly non-Chinese population?

Note: It’s going to be a little tricky to figure out the details of some of Panama’s plan because references to “China” may well be to Taiwan, which Panama recognizes as the Republic of China. So sometimes “China” will mean China (PRC), and sometimes “China” will mean Taiwan (ROC). Expect confusion in news stories about this.

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8 thoughts on “Panama moves toward compulsory Mandarin in schools

  1. As China increasingly is seen as a growing business power, interest in learning the Chinese language had rocketed, and dominance of Chinese over English will be a long time coming. More and more people begin to learn Chinese, because here is clear career potential for the future. Chinese language education market will be prosperous. If you are interested in it, visit the website

  2. Under the condition that pinyin were adopted, do you think (some form of standardized) Mandarin would stand a chance of becoming an “alternative world language” or something to that effect?

    After all, it has lots of speakers already. Its grammar is easier than English at least for initial acquisition. Many learners would still grumble about the difficulty of tones, but you can’t have everything.

    Not that you’d want to give Beijing another reason to slide towards jingoism… But if the gov’t believed this and was willing to promote pinyin just to compete with English, it might actually do some good within the country as well.

  3. Under the condition that pinyin were adopted, do you think (some form of standardized) Mandarin would stand a chance of becoming an “alternative world language” or something to that effect?

    Most definitely.

  4. A few years ago I would have said Mandarin is understudied, but now the situation has reversed. As nice as it is that so many people suddenly want to learn Chinese )a language I taught and hope to teach again, by the way), I think its usefulness is definitely overrated. First off, many Chinese study English, and most Chinese a foreign businessman would have contact with would be able to speak it pretty well. Secondly, as long as Chinese is written in characters- and there’s no sign of that changing any time soon- it’s going to take a lot more time to learn Chinese than English, especially for Western language speakers. Chinese may become an alternative world language, but English will be difficult to unseat given the economic strength of the English-speaking world- especially if you include India, where most well-educated people speak it already- and its incumbent status. For a country like Panama, which is much closer to the US than to China, Mandarin would seem even less important compared to English.
    The Economist recently had an article about how people tend to overrate the usefulness of Chinese:

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  6. Pinyin

    Being a native-Mandarin speaker and fluent with both Simplified and Traditional Chinese, I must say Pinyin will NOT replace Hanzi in the near future. Even Japanese and Korean can’t completely do away with characters. Unless some major changes are made to Mandarin, I don’t see Hanzi being replaced by any phonetic scripts anytime soon.


    I agree that many Chinese businesspeople who deal with foreigners will be able to speak decent English. However, imagine you are one of the hundreds of companies bidding for a project with a Chinese company. All other foreign companies spoke English, which the Chinese company understands perfectly, but you contact them with Mandarin. Not only do you stand out, you also automatically gain some browny points.

    I do agree it’d be difficult to unseat English as the “universal language” though.


    While I’m always happy to see more people speak Mandarin, I simply don’t understand why Panama is adopting such a drastic measure.

  7. Hello, I’m an English-Spanish translator from Panama, coming here from Language Log.

    I wasn’t aware of this (and I should! shouldn’t I? I don’t know, I hardly read newspapers), thanks for writing about it.

    As for the “bachillerato” level, here it simply means a high-school diploma (secondary education).

    On a side note, the teaching of English as a foreign language is already compulsory in schools over here, from primary and secondary school to a university level. At least that is taken care of, but I agree with you that it’s a bit much to require students to learn Mandarin.

  8. Weili,
    The question here is whether it’s worth spending 3 years learning Chinese or if that time would be better spent acquiring another skill or working on your business. Chinese is definitely a benefit, but a smart Chinese businessperson is going to choose whoever’s best in their field.

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