Study of Chinese Language Soars in Southeast Asia

For the first time in Thailand's educational history, a newly founded local international school decides to give the Chinese language a priority instead of the usual entire English curriculum.

"The quick rise of China means Chinese is the future," school founder Varnee Ross explained this unprecedented move to the local media. As a member of a top local business family, she knows very well that in Southeast Asia, Chinese is now the right language to learn.

Like Ross, more and more people in this region become aware of the increasing importance of the Chinese language. The growing demand for Chinese textbooks and teachers can be felt in Bangkok, Manila, Jakarta or other major spots in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile here are over 50,000 Southeast Asian students studying Chinese in China's various universities, and the number is expected to grow by 10 percent annually.

Analysts said Southeast Asia, which accommodates the majority of overseas Chinese and has a centuries-old history of Chinese-language education, is well posed to embrace a new round of Chinese-language boom.

In 1690,Indonesian Chinese founded the region's first Chinese school. Since then Southeast Asia's Chinese education have managed to survive and keep growing despite many rises and falls, mainly due to the local Chinese people's unremitting efforts to keep their ethnic identity and cultural heritage. And today, the local Chinese community is still the major driving force for a new boom of Chinese education.

To date, Southeast Asia has established a complete private Chinese education system comprising over one million researchers, teachers and students in over 2,600various institutes ranging from kindergarten to university.

Chinese communities in Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Cambodia have set up core organizations to give guidance and pool financial support for the Chinese-language teaching sector in their countries. Those bodies, like the Association of Chinese Private Schools of Thailand or the Philippine Chinese Language School Research Center, are also organizing cultural fairs or composition competition to promote local use of the language.

Meanwhile, the rise of local Chinese-language media, including newspapers, magazines, radio, TV stations, and most recently, websites, is reinforcing the course of protecting the rights of the Chinese language education and promoting high-level Chinese culture.

Analysts said a major distinction for the current "Chinese Boom" is that the promotion of Chinese language is, for the first time in history, getting strong attention and support from Southeast Asian governments, which have already began to integrate Chinese-teaching into national educational policies.

"China is certain to play an important role in world economy, so Chinese will be a major foreign language for Thais to learn," said Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra during his official visit to China earlier this year. The premier is also asking for the Chinese government to give assistance to Thailand's Chinese education sector.

He was echoed by former Philippine education minister Andrew Gonzales, who said as China is becoming a major economic powerhouse, people who can speak Chinese will be an "important force in the 21st century."

A senior Malaysian politician also said Malaysians will be benefited from learning Chinese, because it will help to enhance business links with the emerging giant.

Since the late 1990s,the governments of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Cambodia and Laos have adopted a series of measures to ease restrictions on Chinese language education and encourage Chinese-learning. They also permitted the language to enter the curriculum of public schools and national universities, which means all their citizens, not only ethnic Chinese, are now able to access the knowledge of Chinese language.

Nowadays, the intra-regional cooperation on Chinese language education is making headway. China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have agreed to jointly promote the Chinese education in the region as part of their expanding cooperation in the field of human resource development.

Since 1992,Chinese-language experts from all Southeast Asian countries, China and other Asian countries have been holding a biennial conference regularly to exchange information and best practices, and jointly explore the reform of Chinese teaching.

The advent of information era also brings technical changes to Southeast Asia's Chinese-language education, broadening its scale and space. The first global meeting on information technology in Chinese-learning was held last June in Singapore, coming out with the new concept of Globalized Chinese Curriculum in Chinese-teaching. Malaysia and Thailand have already started their remote-learning projects for Chinese language.

Despite the new boom, some people cautioned that due to limited human resources, insufficient funding and a lack of consistency in educational system, Southeast Asia's Chinese education is expected to face certain challenges. However, analysts said with a sound foundation and enormous opportunities brought by closer ties with emerging China, the language is set to have a much better future in the region.

(eastday.com December 18, 2001)

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