Chinese as a second language growing in popularity

Colors of China

Happy Chinese New Year

Guess what the former Australian Prime minister, Kevin Rudd; the successful entrepreneur, Mark Zuckerberg and the U.S. President Obama’s daughter, Malia Obama have in common? They all take Chinese as their second language. The study of the Chinese language opens the way to different important fields such as Chinese politics, economy, business opportunities, history or archaeology.

In 2010 alone, 750,000 people from around the world took the Official Chinese Proficiency Test (HSK). All these people from different industries, backgrounds are learning in hope to understand the often-misunderstood country better and benefit from knowing the most widely spoken language in the world whether it is for personal reasons or business opportunities.

There is a huge growth in numbers of non-Chinese heritage people learning Mandarin, but Westerners actually started learning Chinese as early as the 16th century. The first westerners to master Chinese, were the Italian Jesuits Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci, they were also the first foreigners teaching Chinese. So the often-claimed “Asia Century” isn’t really as new of a trend as you may think, like the old saying “what comes around goes around”. The Chinese civilisation ruled the world in the 15th century when Europe was still in the dark ages. Now, after a couple centuries of the West being in the lead of the economy, the Chinese economy is predicted to overtake as the world’s largest economy once again.

China has over 5000 years of history and has 1.28 billion people, which equates to approximately one fifth of the global population; the significance of knowing Mandarin and understanding China in this world is more obvious than not. China is currently the second largest economy in the world that has strong economic ties with world powerhouses such as the U.S., EU and etc. It is said in 2014 that China’s 10 biggest trading partners are: the U.S. at $521 billion, Hong Kong at $401 billion then in following order, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, Australia, Malaysia, Brazil and Russia.

That being said, one can only imagine the increase in demand for Chinese as a second language service. According to the Chinese Ministry of Education, there are 330 official institutions teaching Chinese as a foreign language around the world, with 40,000 foreign students enrolled. As of 2014, there were over 480 Confucius Institutes established on six continents. Confucius Institutes (孔子学院) are non-profit public institutions affiliated with the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China whose stated aim is to promote Chinese language and culture, support local Chinese teaching internationally, and facilitate cultural exchanges.

Chinese teaching services are increasing day by day, not only are there government-funded institutions such as the Confucius Institutes but also Mandarin Chinese courses held through universities, colleges, private companies as well as individual tutoring.

To further understand this growing phenomenon; I interviewed a few students from “the West” who are from countries among China’s 10 biggest trading partners’ list: U.S., Australia and Germany on why and how they started their Chinese learning journey, they bring us their insights on the importance of learning this language and what they have gained from acquiring this skill.

America, the “Chinese- trend setters”

“Chinese isn’t the new French, it’s the new English” says Robert Davis, director of the Chinese-language program in Chicago’s public school system, which has 8,000 students studying Mandarin.

Today, there are Chinese programs in more than 550 elementary, junior high and senior high schools, a 100% increase in two years. While at the college level, enrolment in Chinese-language classes has increased 51% since 2002, according to the Modern Language Association, a language and literature education organization. Marty Abbott, the spokeswoman for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, says early figures suggest the number of students now studying Chinese has “got to be somewhere around 30,000 to 50,000.” (Information retrieved from USA Today)

Ford Johnson

Ford Johnson

Ford Johnson is a recent graduate with a degree in International Relations and Chinese from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Ford studied and continues to study Chinese because he wants to distinguish himself from other Non-Chinese Americans. He completed six semesters of Chinese at his university before going to Tsinghua University in Beijing for a year, where he credits his fluency in Chinese today.

“My greatest strides in Chinese came about when I first arrived at Tsinghua and had to navigate my new environment without any translators-and for a few days- any other foreigners. Playing basketball and other sports with Chinese people my age also opened up ability for me to build friendships and in turn practice my Chinese.”

Ford pursued Chinese because he believed the ability to speak a language other than Spanish or French by Americans who weren’t born into a non-English speaking culture is quite rare. His interest in Asia and China began early on and he wanted a better understanding of Chinese culture because it has such a rich history and exotic appeal to it. And the knowledge of Chinese is a great conversation starter.

“I think it’s important to learn it because China is a cultural and economic giant in today’s world. Having even a rudimentary knowledge of Mandarin allows a person to travel to China and navigate the culture and the country in ways totally inaccessible to non-Chinese speakers. Some of my greatest cultural insights were gained purely because I understand what natives were saying in a completely uncensored manner.”

When asked, compare to Americans, whether it is equally important for other nationalities to learn Chinese? Ford said:

“Other nationalities are in the exact same position as me and other Americans in my opinion. If someone wants to understand one of the most important cultures in the history of civilization while also distinguishing themselves as a well-rounded and capable individual, knowledge of Chinese is essential.”

Ford also mentioned that in the U.S., most private schools are offering Mandarin Chinese in their curriculums, especially targeting the younger students and many public schools are following the footsteps. “It’s the hot topic in language education at all levels”. Ford says his classmates at Tsinghua were from all over the world, some with Chinese heritage but surprisingly more not. Many came to China on scholarships and programs sponsored by the Confucius Institute or their universities.

Ford believes his fluency in Mandarin and experiences in China has made him standout against others from his degree, which consequently has provided him an advantage in the demanding workforce. He has now taken up a new challenge working at a tech start up based in Atlanta.

The Australians are jumping on the Mandarin Bandwagon

Many countries have started to introduce Chinese Mandarin in to their curriculums, and Australia has definitely been one of the leaders of this phenomenon. The Former Australian Prime minister, Kevin Rudd was renowned for his fluency in Mandarin and this has had its influence on the education system in Australia. Couple generations ago, when Australians chose to learn an Asian- Pacific language, it was often Japanese or Indonesian due to the countries’ close proximity and economic ties. But today there seems to be an increase in Australians learning Mandarin.

Annika Aitken

Annika Aitken

Annika Aitken received her Masters degree (Honours) from the University of Western Australia (UWA) where she had a major in Economics and International Studies and minor in Chinese. I was intrigued to know why a South African born Australian with a European heritage chose to study Mandarin as her second language at university. Annika started her Chinese studies at UWA and went on exchange programs to China during the summers during her summer holidays. After graduation, she continued to study at the Western Australia Confucius Institute.

Annika tells me that she chose to study Chinese for a number of reasons. China’s close proximity to Perth (Australia), has consequently led to many Chinese expats living in Perth, so she has been exposed to a lot of Chinese language and culture over the years, which has made her more eager to learn. Acquiring Chinese also gives her university degree in Economics and International Relations a more competitive international edge. She talks about the importance of learning Mandarin to herself as well as why others should also pick up this language:

“These days so many of our Chinese neighbours are expected to learn English in order to get ahead and foster positive ties with the West, but I think for Australia to really facilitate a strong relationship with China we too need to make an effort to understand Chinese language and culture. It goes both ways! I also think it’s equally important for other nationalities to learn Chinese, as it is the world’s most widely spoken language (ahead of both Spanish and English!).”

When asked how the Australian government demonstrated encouragement or influence on students to learn? Annika said that there are several government funded opportunities designed to encourage students to travel to China for tertiary study, but more recently there has been a push for Chinese language to be offered more widely as a subject even starting as early as primary and secondary school level.

The Deutsch are learning Mandarin. Imme Warneke is in her last year of studies at the University of Applied Sciences Konstanz, majoring in Asian Studies and Management. She has been learning Mandarin in Germany and China for approximately 5 years now. Imme has an education background from Germany, Canada and China as well as work experience in Germany and Hong Kong. She gave me her opinion on why she is chose to focus on Mandarin to her already international resume.

Imme Warneke

Imme Warneke

“I have discovered people have different motives to study Chinese:
1. Many choose to study Chinese due to China’s economic influence, so you see a lot of business students studying Mandarin.
2. Others want to learn an exotic language (so not just French or Spanish like everyone in Europe is doing) and who are drawn to China because of its economic success. These students either learn Chinese in Germany or go to China directly and combine some business studies with Chinese.
3. Some study Chinese because they are interested in the history and culture and think that the language is fascinating since it is so different from Romanic languages. And off course to explore a foreign culture it is crucial to learn the language.
4. Lastly, some just want to travel to China and are not students anymore, or who are interested in China, because of family relations. China has a major media influence in Germany and some people may study it due to pure fascination.”

And for Imme the reason to study Chinese is due to the combination of the four above. Imme wants to tell the Germans that want to learn Mandarin that they can attend classes at professional institutions such as universities, where they use books originally written in China with corresponding German translation. There are also prep courses accompanying the popular HSK tests, which are also offered in Germany. Although she thinks Chinese taught at school can often be slightly outdated, it is a good place to start and get your first taste of Mandarin. She suggests downloading Pleco, as well as obtaining a German- Chinese dictionary, which can also be downloaded on to your smartphones, all of which can help in increasing vocabulary, and bettering pronunciation.

She is now working on passing the HSK 5 test and she has given some useful tips on learning Mandarin as a native German:

“It is useful to follow some Chinese TV shows (teachers can often recommend something that is not too difficult, maybe even children’s show). Find books with CD recordings of the vocabulary and tests. Lastly, it is very useful to find a native speaker in your city to practise with.”

According to the German professional association for Chinese, there are approximately 10,000 students learning Mandarin in Germany. There are 15 established Confucius Institute in across Germany. The German government has also founded different scholarship programs, which support students for one or two semesters or an internship abroad in China.

Students from the U.S., Australia, and Germany shared their Chinese learning journey. There are various places and ways to start:
1. Universities offered classes, some are purely focused on the language while others combine Chinese studies (language and culture) with a business programme, but there are also more historical focused programs, which focus on ancient literature (古文古诗) and history.
2. High schools offer extracurricular activities with Chinese: either more culture focused or even some Chinese classes (many governments are supporting these efforts)
3. Chat groups where you meet up where you can meet native speakers to practise with or meet other students and share your study tips.
4. Study in China (with a scholarship) often universities have their own scholarships and partner programs, since a lot of Chinese students also want to come to Germany
5. Technology. From more well-known programs like Rosetta Stone to newer local Mandarin local portal Mandarin Minds, as well as online help developed by the Beijing Language and Culture University. However almost every student had the smartphone App Pleco (Chinese- English and English- Chinese all-in-one” dictionary) downloaded for the ease of digital flashcards and instant translation.

As China’s economy grows, the importance for non-Chinese to understand the culture, and language is becoming more and more imperative. Therefore many from elementary students to influential politicians to billionaire entrepreneurs are taking Chinese Mandarin lessons. Although Chinese is widely known as a very difficult language and often people quit before even starting due to this prejudice, some students actually said that Chinese has a relatively uncomplicated grammar. Unlike French, German or English, Chinese has no verb conjugation and no noun declension therefore once you build your base level of vocabulary, you can excel faster than other languages in comparison.

But it is learning the first few thousands of characters and the pronunciation that is the hardest for non- native speakers. With growing ties between China and the West, especially massive trading dependencies between China- U.S., China-Australia and China-Germany, the individuals learning this language are gaining a competitive advantage to their degree, differentiating themselves from peers, learning a new communication skill as well as increasing their global business acumen. With the asset of Chinese, they are not only helping themselves in the workforce but also closing gaps between the East and the West as a true citizen of the world. With this all said, what’s stopping you?