Joshua felt a bit hesitant before deciding to learn Chinese when
his school in New Jersey introduced courses in the language two
years ago. "I had heard Chinese was quite difficult and decided not
to give it a try," says the 17-year-old high school student.
But he changed his mind a few days later after receiving a letter
from a girl living in China. The girl from his pen pal group wrote:
"The Chinese language is very interesting and hope you can have fun
learning it." She had drawn two Chinese characters, asking him to
guess which was "cry" and which "laugh."
The answer was given at the back of the letter, but "I didn't
have to see it because I found something that resembled a drop of
tear in the character 'cry', and 'laugh' looked like a smiling
face," says Joshua. "That was the impetus I needed, and I joined
Today, Joshua requests his family members to speak in Putonghua
only during dinner to help him practice the language. "My father
does business with China and I hope I can visit the country in the
Joshua is just one of the millions of foreigners across the
world who is learning Chinese. In fact, more than 40 million
foreigners are learning the language and that number is expected to
reach about 100 million by 2010, says Xu Lin, director of the
office of Chinese Language Council International, or Hanban. The
council is the official agency to promote Chinese language and
culture around the globe - similar to the UK's British Council and
France's Alliance Francaise.
"The demand for Chinese language in the rest of the world has
increased rapidly with China's rise as an economic and political
power," Xu says. Earlier this month, Hanban invited over 800
elementary and high school heads and education officials from the
US, twice more than last year, on a weeklong "Chinese Bridge" tour.
The team, which included, teachers and language coordinators, met
with Chinese educators and established school-to-school ties with
many institutions in China, including some in Beijing.
"The trip was amazing, gorgeous and wonderful, because we got
firsthand knowledge about China's culture and language," says Marcy
Raymond, principal of Metro High School in Ohio. Raymond plans to
bring some of her students to China next summer so that they can
interact with their Chinese counterparts and understand the
"Our school will introduce Chinese language courses from
September. Every student in the US has to learn a foreign language,
be it Chinese or Spanish," she says. Spanish has been the most
widely taught foreign language in US schools for decades. About 70
percent students there opt for Spanish, 20 percent for French, 6
percent for German and 3 percent for Latin. Those learning Chinese,
Japanese, Korean, Arabic or other languages comprise just 1
But Chinese is one of six official languages of the UN and the
most widely spoken across the globe. But it's still not common to
hear people speak Putonghua outside China. And though more than 200
million Chinese schoolchildren are learning English - often
starting as early as in the second grade - only about 50,000 US
students have Chinese as one of their subjects. Some US states have
even designated Chinese a "critical language" because of economic,
cultural and security reasons.
Ten years ago, Assistant Professor of Iowa State University Eric
Shepherd found that none of the American officials could speak more
than a few words in Chinese. Shepherd was an intern with the Ohio
state government then, and met with several visiting Chinese
delegations. "I thought we needed people who knew how to
communicate effectively with Chinese people on their terms," he
Shepherd benefited from the Ohio State University's Chinese
Flagship Program that focused on role-playing and performance-based
intensive training. He got a PhD in Chinese language teaching
recently, and now teaches Chinese to high school and university
Many still believe Putonghua to be one of the most difficult
languages to learn because of its tonal base, writing system and
cultural context. But an even greater number have found it easier
that they had expected it to be.
"Tonal languages (Putonghua has four tones) are easier for
children to learn, so starting at a young age is the best way to
learn Chinese," says Richard Alcorn, board chairman of a Chinese
language school in Massachusetts.
Some other features like its simple grammar and number system
make Chinese easier to learn than some European languages. Even its
technical terms tend to be descriptive. For example, huo shan (fire
mountain) means volcano, and hai xiao (sea roar) means tsunami.
"First learners can start from spoken Putonghua before learning
to write," suggests Alcorn. "To grasp the real life language,
listen to the Chinese spoken on television and radio every day and
interact regularly with Chinese people."
Promoting the Chinese language, however, was quite difficult
initially because a few decades ago the rest of the world knew
little about China, says Lucy Lee, president of Chinese Language
Association of Secondary-Elementary Schools in the US. "When I
started teaching Chinese in the US more than 20 years ago, I was so
jealous of Japanese teachers because they got all they wanted. Now,
it's their turn, with China becoming more influential."
Lee's non-profit organization has more than 400 member schools,
targeting students between 5 and 18. The Chinese language has been
part of the US education system for a long time but earlier it was
confined to universities, and only special areas such as literature
and history were taught.
The language became part of high, junior high, and elementary
school curricula only two decades ago. In April 2006, the US
College Board and Hanban formed a partnership to build and expand
Chinese language programs in US schools. Apart from the Chinese
Bridge delegation, the partnership includes other programs such as
helping US educators promote Chinese language and culture.
In 2002, about 330 US elementary and high schools had Chinese
courses, but by last year there were 650. This year, the US College
Board is likely to offer an advanced placement course in Chinese
and that means more than 2,000 high schools will need Chinese
teachers in the near future.
The demand to learn Chinese is not restricted to the US. People
in other countries too are eager to do so. "If you want to find a
better job you should learn Chinese," says Julian Lo, a tour guide
in Indonesia. "Look around, everything is made-in-China. China is a
big market and knowing Chinese is necessary for a qualified
South Korea sent a 200-member education group to Chinese schools
last month to carry back the experience of learning the language to
Another delegation comprising 110 principals and educators from
the UK visited China in May.
Under the Framework Agreement on Educational Cooperation, the
two sides held the first China-UK Education Summit in Beijing in
February to ensure that all primary and secondary schools in the UK
introduced Chinese language courses in the next three years. More
than 600 primary and secondary schools in the UK already have such
If this trend continues, the number of foreigners learning
Putonghua could very well overtake the number of Chinese learning
English in the not so distant future.
(China Daily July 25, 2007)