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Teach Mandarin and get rich
Ravi Bhoothalingam | October 01, 2005
The world's attention has been riveted by the urgency with which the Chinese are learning English. Stories abound of how, in response to the Party diktat to learn English before the 2008 Olympics, entire corporate workforces line up in stadia all over Beijing, solemnly intoning "Good Morning" and "Have a nice day".
Right now, 300 million Chinese children study English as a second language. But the reverse is also happening. Quietly, Mandarin has taken great strides in its goal to become a widely spoken world language. This has gone almost unnoticed in India, where we pat ourselves on the back for our proficiency in English.
Recently, I spent over six weeks in Beijing, putting myself through an intensive programme of studying Mandarin. Despite many earlier visits as traveller, tourist or business visitor, I had struggled with the Chinese language, attaining a certain level, only to have it slip away during the months before my next trip. This time, I vowed, would be different.
The brochure from the language institute, affiliated to the prestigious Beijing Language and Culture University, was daunting in itself. It promised six hours of formal classes each day, with at least two more hours required for self-study and preparation.
In addition, to immerse oneself in Chinese culture, I rashly signed on for both calligraphy and Taichi, the latter best practised, the brochure urged, "in the hour just after the dawn".
My class of nearly 100 students was a veritable United Nations. North America, Europe, South-east Asia and Australasia were predominant, with respectable numbers from Central and South America, Russia and Africa.
A lone young lady came from Japan. From South Asia, sadly, there was nobody else. Whilst most were in their 20s, there were, to my great relief, a fair number of "mature" students and mid-career professionals.
This motley group had retired Air Force officers from the US, business people from Germany, Russia and Poland, teachers and nurses from Australia, and a sprinkling of eternal students and adventurers.
Their motives for learning Chinese differed widely - to discover a new culture, to take time out from their busy lives, or sheer cussedness - but all were convinced enough of its importance for their future.
I discovered later that teaching Chinese to foreigners is a burgeoning industry in China, and around the world. The BLCU operates a programme turning out graduates highly proficient in teaching Chinese as a foreign language.
Throughout China, universities and private institutes run courses teaching Chinese to foreigners. Some are of excellent quality with BLCU-certified instructors, others of more dubious parentage. Some focus on the large resident expatriate community, others on the more short-term business visitor market.
Finally, all over the walls of Beijings' college cafes, and even in BLCU's renowned watering hole - the "Bla Bla Bar" - are notices from students offering to teach foreigners Chinese for sums as modest as 20 yuan (about Rs 100) an hour.
Interspersed are entries from adventurous female students with photographs attached, which one would have thought quite superfluous for language instruction.
The number of foreign students in China, now 85,000, exceeds the number of Chinese studying abroad. Not a bad record for a country still classified as a developing nation. Globally, 2,300 colleges teach Chinese, with an estimated 20 million people learning the language.
With China's Internet usage expanding rapidly, Mandarin users should overtake those using English within a decade. The runaway success of baidu.com, a Google-type Chinese language site, is testimony to the coming times.
Recognising the world's interest in China, Beijing has lost no time in deploying what Joseph Nye terms as "soft power" - its culture, civilisation and language. A budget of over $200 million a year is dedicated for "Confucius Institutes" to create a "Chinese Bridge" with the rest of the world.
At home, infrastructure in the universities has improved significantly. I found the BLCU campus well equipped in terms of facilities, and student accommodation was clean and functional though frugal. Books, food and public transport are cheap.
Though still far from an open society, the intellectual climate is more conducive to discussion of previously taboo subjects. Indeed, I chose Tibet as the theme for my three-minute verbal presentation, though with some trepidation, and was happy to have my views declared "thoughtful and interesting".
Though Chinese is a difficult language to learn, it is not without its advantages. It has great economy of words, coupled with tremendous expressive power and simplicity of grammar. Indeed, the great mathematician Leibnitz remarked: "If God had taught man a language, that language would have been Chinese."
Modern neurological research reveals that reading the ideographic Chinese script stimulates the right side of the brain, whilst speech functions are localised on the left, thus promoting more productive and holistic use of the brain. And history shows that language closely follows economic power.
Witness the replacement of Greek by Latin in the Mediterranean, the later supremacy of French as the language of diplomacy and power, and the rise of English corresponding to the American century of the past hundred years.
And China is certainly the leading superpower candidate for the future.
Even with all this, it is difficult to see Chinese outpacing English on the world stage. The numbers vastly favour English, and it is still uncertain whether future advances in Internet technology will speed up the present relatively cumbersome method of writing Chinese.Still, as the Chinese say in their characteristically understated manner, the contest should lead to interesting times.