Foreigners flock to learn Chinese

Monday, 9 January 2006 (BBC News | Asia-Pacific)
By Helen Leavey

In Beijing

Indonesian student Ivan Handoyo speaks excellent English, having studied in Australia.

Now the 23-year-old is in Beijing trying to get to grips with Mandarin Chinese.

He wants to study the language so in future he can help his parents with their business selling birds' nests that are used to make soup.

"I hope to help the business expand and deal with Chinese people from all over the world," he said.

Thousands of other foreigners are also flocking to China in increasing numbers to learn Mandarin.

Many believe the country's economic boom will continue, and say knowing Chinese is not only interesting in itself but will help them find interesting and lucrative jobs.

In 2004, a record 110,844 students from 178 countries had enrolled at Chinese universities, according to official Chinese newswire Xinhua. That was a 43% increase on 2003.

In addition, more than 30 million people are currently studying Mandarin abroad, the newswire said.

Last July, the government-sponsored first World Chinese Conference was held in Beijing with the aim of promoting Chinese language teaching.

Mavis Li, from the privately-run Beijing Mandarin School, said the sector had been helped by China's entry into the World Trade Organization and the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which had encouraged people to seek lessons on their own, and companies to send their employees to study Mandarin.

"Most of our students come from Europe and North America, but in the last three or four years more are coming from Asia, South America and Africa," she said.

"China is a huge market; foreigners come for business and need to learn Chinese for work. More people are interested in this ancient and modern, marvelous and mysterious country; many believe they can have an adventure here."

To tap into that market, language schools are sprouting up across the capital, their advertisements appearing by the dozen in English-language magazines.

Taiwanese journalist Yu Senlun was recently commissioned by a Barcelona-based international language school to research the possibility of opening a branch in Beijing.

She found that it is a tough market to break into as there is already fierce competition.

"According to the National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, there are 400 universities in China offering Chinese language classes. The office estimated that in Beijing, there are at least 30 universities and more than 50 private schools."

She said the supply of schools teaching Mandarin exceeds the number of expatriates wanting to learn in Beijing, but she thinks more foreigners can be attracted to the Chinese capital to study.

Many institutions have been waking up to this idea and are recruiting overseas students by holding educational exhibitions abroad and linking up with foreign universities.

Pang Ming, deputy director of the International Programme Department at Beijing Union University (BUU), said her institution had 100 foreign students in September 2000. Four years later, it had 177, and by the autumn of 2005, it had 274.

Of this current batch, 39% came from Indonesia and 31% from South Korea, with the rest from various countries including Japan, Thailand and Britain.

Expanding opportunities

Ms Pang said China's growing business links worldwide were a key reason for the increase in the number of students.

"More countries have launched in China so bilingual talent is needed; knowing Chinese will help the learners find a good job. Some students have learned some Chinese in their own countries, but learning in Beijing is a good language environment and the best way to acknowledge Chinese culture."

Song Juan, a 22-year-old Beijinger, works part-time as a private Mandarin tutor for several foreign students when she is not studying for her degree in computing.

She enjoys teaching so much, and is so convinced the market for Mandarin will continue to grow, that she wants to become a 'proper' teacher after she graduates this year, instead of using her degree to find a job.

"I think I could have a good career teaching Chinese, it would be useful and meaningful," she said. "The whole world wants to understand China; I do not see the craze for Mandarin ending soon."

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