Asked at the start of their first Chinese class what motivated them to take up the language, the students of the Institut de la Providence, a secondary school outside Namur in Belgium, give their new teacher varied answers.
“It’s a big country,” says one. “I’ve been to China and would like to go back,” ventures another.
The two dozen teenagers are part of a pilot project started this autumn in nine Belgian schools to promote Chinese language learning. More broadly, they are among hundreds of thousands of students in the West who are opting to learn Mandarin Chinese, often at the expense of traditional languages such as Spanish or German.
“One way or another, China is the future,” says Olaf Mertens, the school’s headmaster. “There are over one billion people living in China: surely, students should be exposed to their language and their culture.”
China’s rapid economic rise is gradually translating into a greater presence in European and U.S. classrooms, from a very small base as recently as 10 or 15 years ago.
In 1997, about one in 300 U.S. elementary schools taught Mandarin; by 2008 the figure was close to one in 30, according to the latest statistics compiled by the Center for Applied Linguistics. The rise is reflected in the number of students sitting SAT II standardized tests, up 50 per cent since 2001; Advanced Placement programmes run by the College Board have grown by more than 2.5 times.
In Britain, Chinese A-level exam entries in England in Wales rose 36 per cent in 2011 alone, the fastest of any major language. With 3,237 candidates, one in 11 final-year language exams are now for Chinese. About one in six schools in Britain now offer some form of Chinese tuition, government figures show.
From a marginal position 15 years ago, Chinese has imposed itself as the fourth major language behind French, Spanish and German, which, on current trends, it will overtake by the end of the decade.
The rate of take-up of Chinese varies for each country, influenced by student demand -- or, more often, that of their parents -- but also often by the rigidity of the government-imposed academic curriculum.
“In some countries, such as France, demand to learn Chinese can partly be put down to a long-standing interest in Chinese culture. But the recent rapid rise in places like Britain is mostly for utilitarian reasons, linked to China’s new role on the global stage,” says Xinsheng Zhang, director of the language centre at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
More often than not, it is a perception that knowledge of Chinese will be a vital asset in tomorrow’s job market that is driving demand, he says.
Both in Europe and the U.S., there are wide regional discrepancies when it comes to interest in learning Chinese. Richer, more cosmopolitan areas tend to have higher demand: California and New York, partly because of their large migrant populations, have the highest figures in the US. Conversely, European countries such as Italy or Spain show less interest than in parts of northern Europe.
In July, Swedish education minister Jan Björklund floated the idea of every school offering Chinese classes to their students.
“Chinese will be much more important, from an economic perspective, than French or Spanish,” he told the Dagens Industri newspaper.
But the idea was put on the backburner after sceptics pointed to a tiny pool of teachers able to teach Chinese.
Some also wonder whether the rise of Chinese language learning is too closely linked to its recent economic success -- with the risk that it could fade if growth in China were to flag.
“It’s not unlike what happened with Japanese in the late 80s, early 90s,” says Keith Cothrun, director of world languages and cultures of the advance placement programme at the U.S. College Board. “The same [growth]happened with Japanese, which is why I think American society is interested in learning Chinese.”
But Japanese has largely faded in high school curricula -- in some instances being displaced by Chinese as an exotic language option.
Another important factor is the financial support from Beijing, which has stepped up the activities of the Confucius Institutes, a network of cultural diplomacy bodies tasked with increasing china’s “soft power” around the globe.
These institutes are often likened to Germany’s Goethe Institute or the Alliance Française but are considerably more aggressive in pushing Beijing’s worldview and shutting down discussion of any topics regarded as politically sensitive such as tibet or China’s human rights record.
“The Chinese government is supporting a lot of the Chinese teaching in the U.S. . . . that is making a huge difference in Chinese teaching in this country,” said Nancy Rhodes, director of foreign language education the Centre for Applied Linguistics.
The class at the Providence high school in Belgium is itself ultimately paid for by Beijing, through a partnership between its local embassy and the Belgian regional government.
Mr. Mertens, the headmaster, thinks his students will not get far beyond the basic elements of the language, which is renowned as one of the trickiest to pick up, let alone master. As long as they also learn something about the culture, he says, it is well worth their time.
“It’s a country you have to understand nowadays,” he argues.
Additional reporting by Jo Kassel in New York and Jamil Anderlini in Beijing