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Today, students and professionals are waking up to economic realities and opting for the language of dragon country, China.
Actually, the need for Indians to learn Chinese couldn't have been greater than it is today. China could well emerge as India's largest trading partner, surpassing the US soon.
Bilateral trade has been growing at a healthy 35-40 per cent, and ahead of targets - bilateral trade is projected at $20-billion bilateral by 2007, a year in advance of the target year of 2008.
The Chinese Language Institute in New Delhi has been teaching a much in demand course for over a year now - conversational Chinese. Over 350 students have already benefited from their two-month training module.
At least 60 per cent of these "students" are working professionals in the software and the travel and tourism business - NIIT [Get Quote], for example, is a contract customer - while the rest are college students.
Founder Akshay Garg though feels that India is already late in trying to learn the language, which most nations had started to concentrate on a few years back.
For teachers, he has tied-up with a university in China which sends native teachers to the institute in Delhi. The institute has recently ventured into online language training through www.chinese.in. The three-month course can be paid for through a credit card and can be downloaded on to the laptop or iPods.
"We are getting a lot of enquires about the online course from Bangalore and Mumbai where there are not many Chinese language options. Corporates like Satyam [Get Quote] have expressed interest in the course," says Garg.
Most of the leading Indian corporates like Infosys [Get Quote], Reliance [Get Quote], Tata Infotech, NIIT, Essar, Apollo Tyres [Get Quote] and even Satyam, already have staff deputed from India to their China offices and have a need for such ready-to-use courses.
For the erudite however, the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi has been offering graduate and masters programmes in Chinese language for over 30 years. In fact, last year, the Chinese Ministry of Education proposed setting up a Confucius Institute at JNU's School of Languages, an initiative that is currently under process.
Employment prospects for Chinese literates are on the rise as teachers and translators for IT, pharma and chemical companies, for movie titles and for scientific research projects.
There is also a demand for such experts as customer service executives in call centres, as interpreters and as tourist guides (Chinese are emerging as a travel-hungry populace).
Business schools across India too have started offering Chinese as a language option. The Institute for Integrated Learning in Management and the Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, Mumbai, are among those who have already introduced Chinese as an option, and Symbiosis plans to introduce it soon.
Down south, the Great Lakes Institute of Management has gone a step further and made Chinese compulsory for its students of the one-year full-time post graduate management programme.
Interestingly, the opening of the Nathu La pass for trade last month has generated its own demand for the language. The head of Amity School of Foreign Languages, Anita Sahni, informs that eight students have joined its one-year Chinese course. All of them are from the area around Nathu La pass in Sikkim. And you thought that the dragon and the elephant can never shake hands...
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