If you aren’t sure whether to take on the challenge of Studying Chinese in China, then the efforts that the US government is making to ensure that its citizens are doing just that, might be enough to convince you. In November 2009, Obama announced the “100,000 Strong” initiative, which aims to rapidly increase the number of US students studying abroad in China, as well as the diversity of educational and racial backgrounds of the students taking part in such programs. This initiative was launched in Beijing in May last year and has been strongly supported by the Chinese government, who has offered 10,000 Bridge scholarships for American students on China study abroad programs.
Recent statistics indicate that 600 times the amount of Chinese students are learning English as Americans learning Mandarin. Having taught Chinese 3-year-olds who can already have basic conversations in English, this is something that I can totally believe! Apparently by July last year, there were already over 30,000 schools offering private English classes in China (no wonder it’s so easy to find an English teaching job over here!) And it’s not only the numbers of Chinese students learning English in China that have increased, but also the numbers of students studying abroad in the US and other western countries. In the last academic year, almost 128,000 Chinese students were studying in the US, accounting for 19% of the international student population of the country.
Although still lagging far behind, the number of US students studying Mandarin is also increasing each year, with 13,600 students studying abroad in China in 2010. Many high schools in the US, as well as universities, have also now started offering Chinese courses, showing that the West, like the East is beginning to prioritize language learning from an earlier age.
Although encouraging in many ways, these facts do also make me very nervous about investing so much time and effort into learning Chinese. First of all, if so many Chinese people are going to be fluent in English before long, is there really any point in learning Mandarin? Will we ever be able to complete? Secondly, if this is something that everyone is going to do now, will being able to speak Mandarin still be considered special in 5 years time? Is it really worth all the hard work?
I do sometimes have my doubts, but at the end of all, I do believe that studying Chinese is really worth it, especially if you study Chinese in China. Although we may be far behind the Chinese in terms of language learning, being able to communicate with people in their native tongue is very important. More and more young people in China may be able to speak English, but learning Mandarin opens up opportunities to speak to Chinese people from all different backgrounds and allows you to really immerse yourself in Chinese culture. The US government has expressed their worry about the current imbalance in numbers of language learners, believing that it will put the US on an unequal footing in their relationship with China. In what is a relationship of huge economic and political importance, it is clear that we cannot just rely on the English level of the Chinese for our interactions.
Furthermore, study abroad is about more than just learning the language. It is about understanding the culture and mentality of a country and its people, which in the case of China especially, is so different from our own. As Michelle Obama said in her speech in January last year, these opportunities are more about “immersing yourself in someone else’s culture, sharing your stories and letting them share theirs, and taking the time to get past the stereotypes and misperceptions that too often divide us”.
And although the numbers of students learning Chinese are increasing, the majority of them are still from Japan and South Korea rather than Western countries. In fact, out of the 40 million foreign students learning Mandarin around the world, only 50,000 of them are in the US and it is only the 5th most popular foreign language to learn in America. Not just that, but starting learning the language and becoming proficient in it are two very different things. Don’t be put off by the numbers, as I think that a few years down the line, Westerners who can really speak Mandarin will still be few and far between.
So, now is the time to start learning Chinese in China! The fact that the US government is supporting this trend and that the number of proficient Chinese speakers in the West is very low in comparison with China’s proficient English speakers, indicates that, as long as you commit to your studies, it is a great way to put yourself ahead of your competition