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More foreigners gung-ho about learning Chinese
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Don't foreigners turn green with envy when they think of Dashan? The charismatic Canadian speaks fluent Chinese, which has won him a place not only in the hearts of many Chinese but also on Chinese television.

But Dashan is facing more and more competition when it comes to reaping the benefits of speaking Chinese.

Take Karim Rushdy as an example. The British national worked with the Element Fresh restaurant company in Shanghai for five years. "The majority of employees at Element Fresh either spoke very little English or none at all. Only by learning to communicate with them directly was I able to understand their needs and earn their respect and loyalty," Rushdy said.

Then there is Brad Zomick from the United States, who just landed a job as business development manager for Gaopeng, a joint venture between the U.S. company Groupon and China's Tencent.

The position requires advanced Chinese, Zomick said, adding that he had an edge over the competition in part because of his relative fluency in Chinese and having spent two years in China.

"Over the course of the two years, that has allowed me to make lots of guanxi (connections) and also become quite familiar with the culture, language and business landscape," Zomick said.

Polularity of Chinese on the rise

There are a lot of statistics that support the growing popularity of learning Chinese as a foreign language. Last year, 53,000 people participated in the HSK, a standardized test to assess the Chinese language proficiency of non-native speakers. In 2007, the number was 48,000.

Also, according to a Modern Language Association of America survey released last December, Chinese ranks seventh among the most studied languages on U.S. college campuses and has registered an increase of 18.2 percent in enrollments since 2006.

As of fall 2009, over 60,000 U.S. college students were studying Chinese, although the number still lagged behind that of Spanish, French or German learners, the survey said.

Heads of language institutes or Chinese departments at universities around the world have also noticed that popular interest in Chinese is rising.

"Indeed, we do show a tremendous increase in enrollments in Mandarin group classes as well as private tutorials," said Francisco Todd, foreign languages coordinator at the International Language Institute (ILI) in Washington.

Professor Rudolf Wagner from the Institute of Chinese Studies at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, said German students are also warming up to the idea of studying Chinese.

"When I first came here in the 1980s, there were 12 to 15 students who came here to study Chinese every year," he said, adding that the annual number of freshmen studying Chinese has now climbed to 80.

To cater to this growing need for learning the Chinese language and culture, China started establishing Confucius Institutes in cooperation with overseas institutions in 2005. Now, there are 322 Confucius Institutes in 96 countries, said Ma Yansheng, counselor for education and culture at the Chinese Mission to the European Union.

The latest figures from Confucius Institutes around the world also attest to the growing popularity of learning Chinese. In Mexico, the number of students at the National Autonomous University of Mexico Confucius Institute has jumped to 700 in 2010, nearly double the number when the institute was founded in 2009, said Meng Aiqun, the institute's dean.

In Russia, Ren Guangxuan, dean of the Confucius Institute at Moscow State University, said the number of students learning Chinese has ballooned to over 200 this year from mere 70 when the institute opened in 2008.

In Africa, Sa Dequan, director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Nairobi, said applications for Chinese classes rose to over 300 in 2010, compared to only 29 in 2006.

One could cite more figures which show the increase in foreigners learning Chinese, but Professor Gu Licheng, who teaches Chinese at Northwestern University in the United States, put it in a nutshell. "The trend is very clear: It is very steadily and continuously growing and growing and growing," he said.

Why Chinese?

So why are so many people suddenly gung-ho about learning a language which is widely considered to be one of the world's most difficult?

After all, practicing the four tones may put one at risk of becoming a laughing stock, and memorizing thousands of characters requires nothing short of a photographic memory and the patience of job.

Experts give different reasons for this trend, with globalization and economic opportunities being the most frequently cited. "The reason is very clear, China has opened its doors on a plethora of opportunities to be taken. Government jobs, as well as private industry, from English teaching jobs to manufacturing, etc.," Todd from the ILI said.

Qian Jing, a professor of Chinese at Kookmin University in South Korea, said some South Korean students are studying Chinese because their pragmatic parents think it gives them an advantage in the job market.

"Some students began studying the Chinese language not because they were interested in it, but because of the will of their parents, who think Chinese will help their kids find a good job in the future," Qian said, adding that many South Korean students gradually develop a love for China after being exposed to the language.

Similarly, Cheng Haojie, a volunteer language teacher at the Chinese Culture Center in Mauritius, said that Chinese could improve one's job prospects in the African country. "Mastering the Chinese language in Mauritius now almost guarantees a well-paid job and promising career," he said.

The situation does not differ greatly in Kenya. Sa from the Confucius Institute at the University of Nairobi said China's soaring economic development and growing clout on the global stage are causing a greater demand for Chinese-speaking employees, which in turn is sparking more interest in learning Chinese.

The dean of the Confucius Institute in Moscow also made the connection between China's growing economic and political influence and the current craze for studying Chinese among Russians.

"Many Russian people, especially intellectuals, want to study and know more about China's economic achievements," Ren said. "Learning Chinese can help them understand China and its people better."

In fact, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao designated 2010 as the "Year of Chinese Language" in Russia. Medvedev himself has flirted with the idea of learning Chinese. During his visit to the Dalian Institute of Foreign Languages in northeast China last year, he expressed an interest in taking Chinese lessons after retirement. "Chinese is as hard as Russian," Medvedev admitted. "But it is interesting."

Germany's young table tennis star Timo Boll is one step ahead of the Russian president. He has started taking private Chinese lessons at the Duesseldorf Confucius Institute at the beginning of this year. He plans on making Chinese part of his personal ping-pong diplomacy during his frequent trips to China.

"I want to talk with my friends and my opponents," he said. "I hope I can have conversations in one or two years with Chinese people. It's my target."

Of course, a language may serve as a job skill or a stepping stone to a better career. But there are many who are simply motivated by an interest in China's 5,000-year-old culture and the conviction that Confucius' mother tongue is the key to unlocking its philosophy.

"Chinese culture can't be understood without knowing Chinese ... I think learning Chinese is the first step to comprehending Chinese culture," said Park Han-cheol, a student at the Chinese Language Department at South Korea's Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

Moreover, two students in their 20s have discovered that learning the Chinese language raises their awareness of and sensitivity to cultural differences.

Jacob Gill, an American student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, originally started learning Chinese because he was interested in Chinese culture and history.

"I certainly think that learning Chinese has allowed me a different world view that shapes the way I look at culture questions and think about cultural differences," he said.

Bilha Juma, a Kenyan student, has been studying Chinese for only six months, but has found the experience enlightening. "The part that I find easy and interesting is the Chinese culture. The way the Chinese perceive life is quite amazing. They always strive to know more that is outside their culture," Juma said, adding that the Chinese thereby motivate foreigners to learn the language.

Professor Wim Polet, director of the Confucius Institute under the International University College Leuven in Belgium, makes sure the cultural aspect is not neglected when teaching his students basic Chinese conversation.

"We learn the language, we tell about China, about habits in China, and we teach them the respect we should have toward this great culture and people," he said.

Polet appeared proud of the fact that his teaching efforts have borne unexpected fruit. "Some of my students got married with Chinese ladies partly because of my language course," he said.

On a broader scale, learning another language and thus another culture helps prevent or clear up misunderstandings. "Chinese language is really a conduit. Actually it can serve as a bridge. Through learning Chinese, my American students can gradually get to know about China, about the Chinese people," Gu from Northwestern University said, adding that many American students have misconceptions about China.

Yet the scholar recognized that learning Chinese is not just about reading 10,000 books -- it is also about traveling 10,000 miles. "So you can imagine that through actually going to China, talking to the Chinese people, people on the streets, in stores, in shops, they (students learning Chinese) really get to know the Chinese people," Gu said.

Chinese language: No small Challenge

Even though more and more foreigners are enthusiastic about learning Chinese, mastering the oriental language is by no means a small challenge. Many foreigners admit that learning the tones and the characters can be a frustrating experience.

Bukina Vera chose Chinese as one of her majors at Moscow State University. She remembers that out of 150 students who originally chose Chinese, no more than 60 remained after four years.

"Some of them found it was too hard and quit the class. I felt the difficulties too, but I never gave up because of my dream of going to China," she said.

With so many students ready to throw in the towel, teachers have the challenge of sustaining their pupils' interest. Shi Yu, who teaches at the Confucius Institute at the University of Nairobi, knows this all too well.

Shi said Kenyan students are quite interested in learning Chinese, but quickly grow discouraged once the going gets tough. "So, how to keep their passion in learning Chinese in a sustainable manner is also one of our main tasks," Shi said.

Similarly, Qu Songming, who works at Mexico's Yucatan Autonomous University Confucius Institute, has found that sustaining the interest of his playful Mexican students can be challenging.

"I have to find a teaching method to arouse their interest in learning Chinese. I hope we can write a textbook which is suitable for Mexicans," Qu said.

Qu's remarks suggest another challenge facing those who want to teach or learn Chinese: the lack of teaching materials. Pedro Hernandez, a contestant in the 10th Chinese Bridge competition, found the lack of Chinese language teaching materials and books to be an obstacle while studying the language in his native Mexico.

But the ambitious young man did not let that stand in the way of his studies. "So I plan to come back to China to continue my study. That would be fantastic if I can become a student in Peking University or Tsinghua University," he said.

A lack of opportunities to actually practice Chinese with native speakers is another problem many foreign students face. After all, not every foreigner gets to enjoy the favorable language environment of a Chinese university campus.

Aileen Bricker is studying Chinese at the Confucius Institute at North Carolina University. Although the American middle school teacher enjoys certain aspects of her study, such as learning Chinese slang, she regrets that she is unable to actually use it. "The hardest part is not having a language partner to practice what we learn," she said.

Jane Lu, director of the Confucius Institute in Chicago, believed it is important that Chinese learners go to China. "The students who visited China before have more positive attitudes and feelings toward China than those who have never been to China. So it is very important to provide opportunities for students to visit China," she said, adding that this would require more funding.

Finally, there is a shortage of teachers. Lu cited this as the main obstacle to the development of the institute. "The major problem is that we don't have enough budget to hire more teachers and grow the Chinese program to meet the increasing demand," Lu said. "We do hope we can have more teachers and students in the future."

Popularity of Chinese: Just a fad?

So will this enthusiasm for learning the Chinese language last or is it just a fad?

"I don't think it's just a fad," Chinese language student Damiana Andonova from Niles North High School near Chicago said. "It's just that China started to have a larger role in the world, economically speaking, and it's just a good idea to kind of know the language if you ever plan on doing something, traveling there, or doing business there."

However, Wileen Hsing, who teaches Chinese at Niles West and Niles North High Schools, knows how quickly things can change. The Chinese American was originally hired to teach English 10 years ago but was then asked to jumpstart a Chinese language program in 2008 to meet the increasing demand for Chinese at both schools in Chicago's suburbs.

She believed that the mass appeal of a language depends in large part on economic and political ties between nations.

"If the economy of China falls, or its relationship with the United States deteriorates, I think that will change the appeal of learning Chinese," she said, pointing out that learning Japanese and Russian was fashionable in the 1980s until the economies of both countries went downhill. "Hopefully we won't go that way."

(Additional reporting by Yue Yuling and Song Ying in Beijing, Rong Jiaojiao and Li Dajiu in New York, Zhang Baoping and Ted Regencia in Chicago, Chen Yi in Seoul, Zheng Qihang in Berlin, Wang Yanan in Nairobi, Zhang Dailei in Moscow, Liu Lili in Mexico City, Tian Ye in Port Louis and Miao Xiaojuan in Brussels)

(Xinhua News Agency June 17, 2011)

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