Teaching Chinese

Mandarin's Great Leap Forward

Interest soars in learning China’s official language

ON A small street in Singapore’s Chinatown Fu Xianling, the founder of a language-education company called New Concept Mandarin, searches for additional office space. Mr Fu wants to expand his business with the lofty ambition of competing with the industry leader, Rosetta Stone. Demand for his product has increased by 20% over the past two years.

As the Chinese economy surges, so does interest in Mandarin. The Chinese government estimates some 40m people study Mandarin outside the country, up from 30m in 2005. A tight job market in the West is partly responsible. According to a survey in September by Rosetta Stone, 58% of Americans believe the lack of foreign-language skills among native workers will lead to foreigners taking high-paying jobs. “The recession has focused people on where growth is going to come from,” says Tom Adams, the firm’s chief executive. Among existing corporate customers logging into the company’s multi-language programme, the number learning Mandarin increased by 1,800% between 2008 and 2010.

Fred Rao, the founder of eChinese Learning, which offers one-on-one Mandarin instruction through Skype, predicts fierce competition. Taking a page from Mr Rao’s playbook, Rosetta Stone recently launched a new way for its Mandarin students to connect via video links to instructors in China.

Asia remains the core market. The Beijing Language and Culture University Press, the largest publisher of Chinese-language textbooks, says South Korea and Japan are its biggest customers. The number of Indonesians studying in Chinese institutions increased by 42% between 2007 and 2009, according to the Chinese embassy in Jakarta. In September India’s education minister proposed Mandarin classes at state schools.

The question remains whether the Mandarin rush will prove a fad. Japanese and Russian also had “hot” periods, only to recede in popularity. And Chinese can be controversial. With some parents fearful of communist influence, a California school district recently turned down $30,000 per year from the Chinese government to pay for Mandarin classes.

Yet Mandarin ought to continue to grow. In America just 4% of schools teach the language. In Britain, though Mandarin is spreading, the most popular languages by far remain Spanish, French and German. There is a long way to go before China’s main language becomes as widespread as its economic influence.

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