Chinese 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 countries.

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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