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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 January 2007, 13:22 GMT
Mandarin learning soars outside China
Dealers in the City Of London
Parents in finance see Chinese as an advantage for their children
In just five years, the number of non-Chinese people learning Mandarin Chinese has soared to 30 million. What is fuelling this expansion, and will it change the status of English as a global language?

Shanghai-born lawyer Kailan Shu Lucas of Chinese Learning Centre organises lessons in Mandarin, the main Chinese language, for pupils in London - and she is very busy.

She now co-ordinates lessons for 12 London schools. She believes that in most cases, having their children study the language is a career calculation made by the parents.

"Parents nowadays think that in 10-20 years' time, when their children are in adulthood, China will be even bigger - and so learning Chinese will be a very helpful tool," she told BBC World Service's Analysis programme.

"This will be a very useful, important language to learn."


In London, the parents of most of the non-Chinese students studying Mandarin Chinese are from the finance industry.

Kailan said that in this industry, China is "a big thing."

Yuan notes
Money talks. Currently, the language money talks is the dollar. But it might not always be that way
Professor David Crystal

"That influences the parents' thoughts," she added.

"They want their children to learn Chinese and be more versatile in terms of job prospects in the future."

The belief is that China is not just a new rival, but a new provider, not just a UK phenomenon - in the US too, numbers of teenagers taking Chinese have rocketed.

In 1998, just 6,000 student enrolled in Mandarin programmes. That figure is now 50,000.

"Students want to sign up for it; parents are asking for it; communities are asking for it," said Brett Lovejoy, of the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

"It's self-evident that children will be much better off economically and in job seeking if Chinese programmes are adopted."

In the UK, the number of students at colleges and universities taking Chinese as their main subject doubled between 2002 and 2005. Similar increases are reported in most Western nations.

This has not happened without encouragement from Beijing, where the government is actively promoting the speaking of Mandarin abroad.

Hundreds of teachers have been sent to Africa, and since 2004, China has set up "Confucius Institutes" around the world, actively promoting Mandarin Chinese.

So far, they have signed contracts with 40 universities in 25 countries to establish these joint projects.

Global language

And professor David Crystal, a leading authority on how languages work and how they change, explained that the explosion in the numbers learning Chinese is also down to demographic influences at home.

"In modern times, as cultures have changed - especially in Britain, the United States and Australia - as the countries have become increasingly multi-cultural and multi-ethnic, then the languages that come with those groups of immigrants become an increasingly important part of the culture," he said.

Two lions celebrating Chinese New Year
Analysts say China's culture is better understood through Mandarin
"London is one of the multi-lingual centres of the world... the monolingual tradition of English in the past is changing very much, and I think Chinese is one of the important factors.

"People who used to be able to make their way in the world as monolingual English speakers are now finding that they've got to compete with people who are genuinely multilingual."

Despite the big increase, most analysts agree Chinese is not about to replace English as the "global language" in the immediate future.

But professor Crystal added that this may not always be the case.

"It all depends on the power of the people who speak it - especially their economic power," said professor Crystal.

"A thousand years ago, people would have said it would be absurd that Latin would not be spoken in 1,000 years' time. But we know that has happened. It can only take 100 years or so for the language balance of power to shift.

"Money talks. Currently, the language money talks is the dollar. But it might not always be that way."

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