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June 23, 2011

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Everybody's learning Chinese

STUDENTS all over the world are learning Chinese and reaping its benefits. The number is rising as China plays a more important role on the world stage and offers many job opportunities. And learning about 5,000 years of culture is a big draw.

Still, the language is famously difficult to master, with its four basic tones and thousands of characters. Many students drop out when the going gets tough and Chinese teachers are challenged to keep it interesting. In some places there's a lack of appropriate and culturally relevant teaching materials, a lack of native Chinese speakers for practice and a lack of funding to expand programs.

Though learning Chinese is popular, even a craze right now, Chinese teacher Wileen Hsing in Chicago knows how quickly things can change. The Chinese-American was hired to teach English 10 years ago, then jump-started a learning program in 2008 to meet the rising demand in Chicago's suburbs.

She believes the mass appeal of a language depends in large part on economic and political ties between nations.

"If the economy of China falls, or its relationship with the United States deteriorates, I think that will change the appeal of learning Chinese," she says, pointing out that learning Japanese and Russian was fashionable in the 1980s until the economies of both countries went downhill. "Hopefully we won't go that way."

In China, the picture is rosy.

Many foreigners envy Dashan (real name: Mark Rowswell), the charismatic Canadian whose command of Chinese has won him a celebrity position teaching the language on CCTV.

But Dashan is not the only person reaping the benefits of speaking Chinese.

Take Karim Rushdy as an example. The Briton worked with the Element Fresh restaurant company in Shanghai for five years. "Most employees either spoke very little English or none at all. Only by learning to communicate with them directly was I able to understand their needs and earn their respect and loyalty," Rushdy says.

Then there is Brad Zomick from the United States, who just landed a job as business development manager for Gaopeng, a joint venture between the US company Groupon and China's Tencent.

Growing popularity

The position requires advanced Chinese and Zomick says he had an edge because of his relative fluency and because he spent two years in China.

"Over two years, that has enabled me to make lots of guanxi (connections) and become familiar with the culture, language and business landscape," Zomick says.

Lots of statistics show the growing popularity of learning Chinese as a foreign language. Last year, 53,000 people participated in the HSK, China's standardized test of proficiency of non-native speakers. In 2007, the number was 48,000.

According to a Modern Language Association of America survey released last December, Chinese is the seventh most-studied language in US colleges and enrollment has increased by more than 18 percent since 2006. In fall 2009, more than 60,000 US college students were studying Chinese.

Language institutes worldwide report similar increases.

"We do show a tremendous increase in enrollments in Mandarin classes as well as private tutorials," says Francisco Todd, foreign languages coordinator at the International Language Institute (ILI) in Washington, DC.

To cater to the growing need to learn Chinese language and culture, China started establishing Confucius Institutes in cooperation with overseas institutions in 2005.

Today there are 322 Confucius Institutes in 96 countries and their enrollment is increasing. Confucius Institutes around the world also attest to the growing popularity of Chinese.

Big increases are reported in Russia, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.

So why are so many people gung-ho about learning a language that is widely considered to be one of the world's most difficult?

Globalization and economic opportunities are the big reasons.

"China has opened its doors and there's a raft of opportunities to be taken. Government jobs, as well as private industry, from English teaching jobs to manufacturing," says Todd from the ILI.

Qian Jing, a professor at Kookmin University in South Korea, says some pragmatic parents think it provides an advantage in the job market. After a while, students come to love China, he says.

Similarly, Cheng Haojie, a volunteer teacher at the Chinese Culture Center in Mauritius, says mastering the language "almost guarantees a well-paid job and promising career."

In Russia, President Dmitry Medvedev and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao designated 2010 as the "Year of Chinese Language" in Russia. Medvedev himself has flirted with the idea of learning Chinese. During his visit to China last year, he said he might study Chinese after retirement. "Chinese is as hard as Russian," Medvedev said, "but it is interesting."

But many people study because they are interested in China's 5,000-year-old culture and philosophy.

"Chinese culture can't be understood without knowing Chinese. It's the first step in comprehension," says Park Han-cheol, a student at South Korea's Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

Learning the language also raises awareness of and sensitivity to cultural differences.

"Learning Chinese has allowed me a different world view that shapes the way I look at culture questions and think about cultural differences," says Jacob Gill, an American student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"Chinese culture is the interesting part. The way Chinese perceive life is quite amazing," says Bilha Juma, a Kenyan student.

Professor Wim Polet, director of the Confucius Institute at the International University College Leuven in Belgium, emphasizes culture.

"We learn the language, we tell about China and customs and we teach the respect we should have toward this great culture and people," he says. "Some of my students married Chinese ladies partly because of my language course."

Many American students have misconceptions about China and learning Chinese helps prevent and clear up misunderstandings, says Professor Gu Licheng of Northwestern University.

But learning can be frustrating.

Vera Bukina chose Chinese as one of her majors at Moscow State University. Out of 150 students who started, no more than 60 remained after four years.

"Some of them found it too hard. I also found it difficult but never gave up because of my dream of going to China," she says.

With so many students ready to throw in the towel, teachers are challenged to sustain their pupils' interest. Shi Yu, who teaches at the Confucius Institute at the University of Nairobi, says Kenyan students are quite interested, but quickly grow discouraged once the going gets tough.


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