Mandarin challenging English as language of choice in Asia

China is actively promoting its tongue in Thailand, East Asia

Published: Thursday, Jan. 12 2006 12:00 a.m. MST

BANGKOK, THAILAND — Inside a brightly painted classroom, a circle of kindergarten kids sits facing their teaching assistant, a Filipina. "So what kind of present do you want from Santa?" she asks in English. "Do you want a toy? Who likes Barbie?" Some of the girls stick up their hands.

"We also have a Barbie for boys. What's he called?" the teacher continues. Several voices overlap, all speaking in English. "Ken!" "I want boy Barbie!" "I too want, miss!" After the hubbub subsides, the day's lesson begins: The sound made by the letters Q and U.

Next door, another group of preschoolers is playing a game. Their profile is identical — under 5, over 90 percent Thai. But the teacher is Taiwanese, the language being spoken is Mandarin and the classroom decor is Chinese.

After recess, the children will swap places — and switch languages. When school is over, pupils revert to speaking their mother tongue. The next day, it's back to the immersion classes in English and Chinese.

Welcome to the cutting edge of Thailand's flirtation with Chinese, an ancient language increasingly seen as the new dialect of diplomacy and trade in East Asia. In the last few decades, China's economic rise has rippled across the globe, jolting policymakers and dazzling investors.

In its wake, Mandarin is also making gains.

Just as the United States leveraged its superpower status to promote its language and culture, Beijing is busy exporting its tongue. It may lag behind English as a global language, but there's no doubting its rising appeal, especially in Asia.

Thailand hasn't turned its back on English: It's still compulsory in public schools and likely to remain so. But starting from this year, thousands of schools will introduce Chinese as a foreign language, with a target of enrolling 30 percent of all high school students in programs within five years.

"There's been a lot of interest among parents as well as students to learn the Chinese language," says Khunying Kasama Varavarn, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Education. "We hope to establish at least one secondary school offering Chinese in every province."

Thailand is counting on support from Beijing, which has promised to train more Thai language teachers, send native speakers to work in Thai schools and provide free teaching materials.

China is already supporting language training in dozens of countries and reportedly has set a target of raising the number of foreigners studying Mandarin around the world to 100 million by 2010. Currently, more than 30 million people worldwide are studying Mandarin, according to the Chinese news service Xinhua.

Since 2004, China's Education Ministry has opened language centers called Confucius Institutes in over 20 countries, including South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Sweden, and Kenya.

In 2004, 110,844 foreigners from 178 countries were studying Mandarin in China, says Xinhua, up 43 percent on 2003. In Southeast Asia, private language schools in Malaysia and Indonesia report rising enrollment in Chinese classes, according to Knight Ridder.

For now, most Thai students of Chinese attend private classes. At ICI, a language school in Bangkok, principal Liu Xiaoying sees a steady stream of professionals keen to master Mandarin. Many work for import-export companies and want to expand their business with China.

Liu, who was born in China and moved to Thailand, says that anyone can learn the language with a bit of effort. But like many in the private education sector, she has her doubts about the government's plans to teach Chinese to the next generation.

"Everyone studies English for five hours a week, and they study for several years, but how many of them can actually communicate in English? How many people can use English to do business?" she asks, raising an eyebrow.

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