Learning Fervor Gathers Momentum
According to Li Guiling, deputy director of
the National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign
Language, more than 80 universities in the United States offer
degree programs in Chinese, and more than 700 American
universities offer Chinese courses. Surprisingly enough, not
only overseas Chinese and the children of foreign citizens of
Chinese origin are motivated to learn Chinese, but also many
foreigners of non-Chinese origin.
20 Million People Study Chinese
The office has come up with a conservative
estimate of people studying Chinese around the world at over
20 million. In the United States, in addition to institutes of
higher learning, over 300 grade and high schools have also
opened Chinese courses, and there are also numerous weekend
courses and programs. In recent years overseas students from
China's mainland alone have established more than 200 Chinese
schools in the United States, where they teach simplified
Chinese characters and the Pinyin Romanization system. Chinese
has become the third most-used language in the United States.
The American Association of Chinese Teachers has a membership
of 800, 80 percent of whom are from China's mainland.
Chinese is also the third most-used
language in Canada, where many large universities have set up
Chinese programs. In the 1990s, Chinese entered the linguistic
mainstream of the United States and Canada, and it is now
possible to travel around North America without knowing a word
of English, the knowledge of Chinese being sufficient.
Chinese study has also gathered momentum in
Europe and Oceania. Italy formerly had only eight universities
with a Chinese department, but this number has now increased
to 20. In Britain, France and Germany, a number of
universities have set up Chinese departments, or sometimes
even separate colleges of Chinese studies, and Chinese courses
have also started up in some middle schools. The French
Ministry of National Education has set up a special department
to supervise Chinese tuition in grade and middle schools
around the country. Australia and New Zealand have a close
link with Chinese as many local residents are of Chinese
origin, and in order to standardize Chinese teaching, the
Education Ministry of New Zealand and the education
departments of several Australian states hire Chinese teaching
assistants or advisors.
Geographically speaking, South America is
the continent farthermost from China, yet several of the
continent's countries, such as Mexico, Chile and Brazil, have
opened Chinese programs in institutes of higher learning, as
well as privately run Chinese schools.
Africa also has a large number of people
studying Chinese. A large proportion of the first group of
foreign students that came to China to study Chinese was from
Africa. Many universities in African countries such as South
Africa, Benin, Cameroon, Kenya, Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast)
and Sudan, offer Chinese courses, and Congo was one of the
earliest countries to teach Chinese in middle schools. Ain
Shams University of Egypt is advanced in Chinese teaching,
offering bachelor, master and doctorate degrees in the
subject. One year, the group representing this university came
second in a global Chinese debating contest between university
students. Tunisia also boasts institutes of higher learning
renowned for Chinese teaching that have not only attracted
local students but also people from neighboring countries.
Fervor Runs Highest in Asia
Due to geographical and historic reasons,
the countries of Asia have shown more interest in studying
Chinese than those in other parts of the world. Asian students
now account for 75 percent of foreign students studying
Chinese in China. In the past, however, some Asian countries
banned Chinese study, the longest period being for 32 years.
The Republic of Korea takes the lead in
Chinese-learning fervor. In 1945, Seoul University set up its
Chinese Department, and in the 1950s, the number of
universities providing Chinese programs increased to five.
After China established diplomatic relations with the ROK in
1992, Chinese studies developed even faster. In 1996, 113
South Korean universities had Chinese departments, and this
figure has now surpassed 140. More than 300 middle schools in
the ROK offer Chinese courses, and the number of students from
the ROK studying Chinese in China has now outstripped those of
Japan, becoming the largest student body of all foreign
Frequent cultural exchanges between China
and Japan can be traced back over 1,000 years. The Chinese
language has a profound influence on Japanese culture,
particularly as regards its language. Today, no less than one
million people are studying Chinese in Japan.
In Indonesia, President Suharto banned
Chinese study after he came into office, and this ban lasted
for 32 years until President Abdurrahman Wahid came into
power. During the Suharto era, all but two universities
cancelled their Chinese courses. Things are different today.
The Indonesian government not only allows universities to set
up Chinese departments, but also permits Chinese schools in
the private sector. The Indonesian Ministry of Education and
Culture has included Chinese in its middle school curriculum
and made Chinese a compulsory course at certain middle schools
in seven cities. According to a local educator, Xu Jingneng,
if the speed of current development continues, in five years
the number of people studying Chinese in Indonesia will have
reached five million.
In the aftermath of Suharto's ban,
Indonesia has a shortage of Chinese teachers. This year
Guangdong Province in southern China sent eight teachers to
Indonesia and helped train 1,000 Chinese teachers within three
months. They originally planned to enroll 200 people for a
session, but 500 signed up.
The shortage of teaching staff is also a
problem in other countries. In Singapore, where members of the
population of Chinese origin account for more than 70 percent,
Chinese is one of the official languages. Singapore uses the
standard Chinese dialect (known in English as Mandarin),
simplified characters, and pinyin romanization. In 1999, it
recruited over 30 Chinese teachers from China's mainland,
placing them mainly in primary and middle schools. In 2000,
this figure increased to over 40.
Chinese used to be the working language in
the history of Vietnam, and today Chinese has become the
second most-used foreign language in the country. More than 20
universities offer Chinese programs, and many middle schools
teach Chinese as an optional course. Chinese teaching is now a
respected and highly paid profession in Vietnam.
Influenced by Princess Maha Chakri
Sirindhorn, who has studied Chinese since 1980 and is highly
proficient in the language, Thailand has seen an unprecedented
fervor for studying Chinese over the last decade. Bangkok has
become the center of Chinese learning. The standard Chinese
dialect (Mandarin), simplified characters and pinyin
romanization are gaining popularity throughout the country. In
order to teach Chinese effectively, some Thai universities
have recruited Chinese teachers to compile textbooks. The Thai
Ministry of Education encourages universities and middle
schools to open Chinese courses if conditions allow, and has
included Chinese teaching in its program.
Such fervor is also ongoing in other Asian
countries, such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia,
Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Kazakhstan.
Teaching Chinese to Foreigners
Propelled by the worldwide fervor for
learning Chinese, teaching Chinese as a foreign language has
developed quickly in China. In 2000, 35,000 foreign students,
out of a total foreign student population of 52,000, came to
China to study Chinese. "China has seen the most rapid
development in this field since the 1990s," says Li Guiling,
"accompanied by a marked increase in the country's cultural
exchanges, economic cooperation with the outside world, and a
tourism boom. Many foreign countries have a need for people
proficient in Chinese."
Today numerous universities in China offer
flexible programs for foreign students. The length of study
ranges from short sessions of a few weeks or months up to a
full four-year course, or even longer. The students are either
on sponsored programs or self-supporting. Courses have
expanded from linguistics to different aspects of Chinese
studies in which bachelor, master and doctorate programs are
available. In 2000 China enrolled 13,000 students, among whom
2,192 were studying for masters, and 1,059 for doctorate
degrees. In Chinese language study, courses of different
orientations are designed for language professionals,
businesspeople, government employees and those involved in
foreign trade and tourism.
In the early 1980s, China had 66
universities with facilities for teaching foreign students.
This figure has now increased to 357. Besides schools, there
are other channels of access to Chinese language education,
such as radio, TV and the Internet. China Today (formerly
China Reconstructs) was the first magazine to include a column
helping foreigners to learn Chinese. In the January issue of
1955, China Reconstructs launched its "Language Corner," which
is a regular feature to this day.
HSK: Chinese TOEFL
In the past, China had no standard through
which to gauge Chinese proficiency. Today, however, HSK, the
Chinese abbreviation for the Chinese proficiency test, or
China's TOEFL, has been established for more than 10 years. "HSK
is a test designed for non-native speakers (foreigners,
overseas Chinese, and students of Chinese ethnic minorities),"
explains Song Shaozhou, deputy director of the Office of the
State Commission for Chinese Proficiency Test, and director of
the HSK Center of the Beijing Language and Culture University.
HSK was designed by the HSK Center of the
Beijing Language and Culture University, and involves the
efforts of over 100 experts in Chinese. According to Mr. Song,
HSK includes 11 levels. The top three, from 9 to 11, are
advanced levels, equivalent to the language skills of a native
speaker with a bachelor's degree. The levels from 6 to 8 are
intermediary -- good enough for an ordinary job. The levels
from 1 to 5 are elementary. Those seeking to study a master
degree must pass HSK at Level 8.
HSK is held regularly in China and
overseas. Those who pass are issued a certificate by the State
Commission of Chinese Proficiency Test. In 2001, three HSK
tests were arranged in China, on May 13, July 8, and December
16. The dates for overseas HSK tests are set by the State HSK
Commission and its overseas representatives, and the test
questions are provided by the commission.
Today there are 47 HSK test sites in 27
cities in China, and 55 sites scattered over 24 countries,
including nine in Asia. According to Song Shaozhou, since HSK
was launched in 1990, 350,000 people have taken the test, with
a pass rate of 75 percent. The number of HSK participants has
been increasing at an annual rate of 30 percent.
The Future of Chinese
Chinese is a language used by people of all
ethnic groups in China and is an official and working language
within the United Nations. It is the most used language in the
world, and its history dates back at least 6,000 years.
Both Li Guiling and Song Shaozhou believe
that the current Chinese learning craze is attributable to the
long history and splendid achievements of the Chinese
civilization, as well as to China's rapid economic growth over
the past two decades. Historically, China has made significant
contributions to the development of humankind, and today,
China is representative of today's world dynamism. From 1980
to 1999, China's average GDP increased 9.7 percent annually,
and hundreds of thousands of foreign businesses entered China.
Proficiency in Chinese has become a qualification for those
who want to work in foreign enterprises, either on the
mainland or in Hong Kong.
Last August, the Chinese craze swept across
the University Village in Beijing. People of diverse
nationalities took up Chinese study with enormous enthusiasm.
A Swedish coach and a Yugoslavian official admitted that they
had long had an interest in China prior to starting to learn
Chinese. Kim Jung-hye from the Republic of Korea said she had
formerly studied English back home, but switched to Chinese
after making a trip to China.
Last January, the legislature of Utah in
the United States proposed a law that all public middle
schools in the state should offer Chinese as a compulsory
element of their curriculums as from 2001, and in March,
Governor Mike Leavitt endorsed this law, bringing it into
effect. According to the Chinese trade and affairs chief
representative (by the Chinese name of Hu Xiangqian) of the
government of Utah, this legislation represents recognition of
China's rapid progress by the mainstream of American society.
More and more Americans have come to realize that the
relations between China and the United States are not only
regional, but also global, and that the economy of the two
countries is mutually supplementary to a great extent. It is
generally believed that the economic and cultural relations
between China and the United States should develop towards
that of a partnership. The decision by Utah to popularize
Chinese is in anticipation of this trend.
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