China focus: Found in translation

It is spoken by one fifth of the planet’s population and is increasingly crucial for international business – why the world is clamouring to learn Mandarin

As China’s economy advances, and its profile as a cultural hub flourishes, there has been a sharp increase in the world’s demand for learning Mandarin, the official language of China.

With more than 100 million people worldwide said to be studying Chinese as a foreign language, “Mandarin fever” has never been greater. This budding “global language”, spoken by approximately one-fifth of the world’s population, is increasingly being offered on the curriculum of schools outside of China.

According to Hanban, the Office of Chinese Language Council International – a public institution affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education – in 2009 Confucius Institutes around the world offered 9,000 Chinese courses. Enrolment numbers are rising rapidly every year, and it is estimated that there will be more than 150 million non-Chinese people studying the language in the next couple of years.

Michelle Obama practiced Mandarin
Michelle Obama practiced Mandarin ahead of her first trip to China

Hanban's Confucius Institute focuses on the promotion of the Mandarin language and culture, supports local Chinese teachers teaching internationally, and facilitates cultural exchanges. Started 10 years ago, as of 2014, there were more than 480 Confucius Institutes across six continents.

A typical example is the Confucius Institute at the University of Dubai. Since opening in 2011, more than 500 people have studied there, with the centre not only offering lessons in Mandarin but also holding cultural events to celebrate traditional Chinese festivals such as Mid-Autumn Day and Chinese Spring Festival.

Ma Jun, Director at the Confucius Institute in Dubai, says there is a particularly robust interest in the Mandarin language in the emirate. “The rapid economic and social development of China is drawing people’s attention in Dubai,” he says, “Business with China is flourishing, and there is an increasing number of Chinese people visiting and working here.”

With more than 100 million people worldwide said to be studying Chinese as a foreign language, “Mandarin fever” has never been greater

Most students, he says, are adults, who range from corporate employees and managers to policeman, government officials, entrepreneurs and college students.

The Chinese also contribute to Dubai’s growing tourism sector, with more than 275,000 tourists from China visiting the emirate last year, according to Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing. As a result, many staff in the emirate’s airports and malls are now required to speak Mandarin.

A spokesperson from Burberry confirmed that the fashion group’s Dubai Mall store employs Mandarin-speaking sales associates, and screens special in-store video content around Chinese New Year. Department store Bloomingdales in Dubai Mall also has Mandarin-speaking staff.

Mandarin Chineasy
There are many techniques around to simplify the learning of Mandarin; a popular one is the Chineasy programme, which creates pictures from charactersImage: Chineasy

Meanwhile, growing numbers of Westerners are not just content with mastering Mandarin, they also want to demonstrate their talents in the Chinese media industry. Jesse Appell, a young Fulbright scholar, has become a star in China because of his video “Laowai (foreigner) Style”. The video received one and a half million views on the internet, and that number is still rising. Appell studied “xiang-sheng”, China’s unique form of “cross-talk” comedy – a genre rich in puns and banter – with master Ding Guangquan.

Language teacher Lin Li, who has been teaching English at a well-known nationwide after-school franchise for five years, says that “listening to Chinese pop music and learning xiang-sheng has been "a great way for Westerners to improve both their language skills and cultural understanding”.

As China’s  cultural influence continues to grow, such opportunities, no doubt, will be available to increasing numbers of language-learners eager to perfect their skills.

More By the Same Author