No kidding. The urge that drives those salarymen to pass up karaoke on a Friday night is increasingly common. In the past, when people set out to improve themselves by learning another language, those that didn't already speak it usually picked English. But while English may be the only truly international language, millions of tongues are wagging over what is rapidly becoming the world's other lingua franca: Mandarin. Seen as a key skill for people hitching their futures to China's economic rise, Mandarin is becoming common currency, particularly in Asia where trade ties with the Middle Kingdom are supplanting those of the region's longtime primary partner, the U.S. Indeed, because English is spoken so universally, it no longer offers companies and employees the edge it once did, according to a recent report by British linguist David Gaddol. If you want to get ahead, learn Mandarin. "In many Asian countries, in Europe and the USA, Mandarin has emerged as the new must-have language," Gaddol notes.
To an extent, this is a case of history repeating itselfwith a twist. Just as Americans started studying Japanese in droves in the 1980s, when Japan's economy was ascendant, so today, as China rises, the world is embracing Mandarin. (It doesn't hurt that Chinese is spoken by an estimated one out of every six people on earth.) In South Korea, 160,000 high school and university students are studying the Chinese language, an increase of 66% over the past five years. The number of Japanese secondary schools offering Mandarin more than tripled between 1993 and 2005, and in Japan it's now the most taught foreign language after English. Mandarin is even being pushed within China itself, where hundreds of Chinese dialects can make communication tricky. The central government has promoted standard Mandarin, or putonghua, since the 1950s. Growing internal migration has boosted that effort, and putonghua is now commonly heard on the streets of Shanghai and Guangzhou, cities with their own dialects.
Outside Asia, the ranks of students studying Chinese are small but growing rapidly. From 2000-2004, the number of students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland doing Advanced Level exams (those normally taken at age 18) in Chinese climbed by 57%. In the U.S., Chinese still lags far behind traditional foreign languages like French and Spanish, but China is the fastest growing destination for college students studying abroad. "I thought about what I was going to do after I graduated from college," says Kim Ku Jin, a 26-year-old from Pusan, South Korea. "How am I going to earn money? How am I going to eat?" The answer: buckle down and learn Mandarin. When Kim completed his obligatory two-year military service, he headed to the Chinese capital to pursue a language degree at the Beijing Language and Culture University. "In China I will definitely have opportunities," he says. Claudia Ross, a Chinese-language professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, says she's hearing the same things from her pupils. "Students who enrolled in Chinese used to tell me their parents would say, 'Why on earth are you studying this?'" says Ross. "Now students regularly come in saying, 'I'm taking Chinese because my parents say I should.'" At Holy Cross, enrollment in first-year Chinese doubled last year. "There are dollar signs attached to it," says Ross.
Mandarin was not always so trendy. It's daunting to learn, especially for Westerners, because of the tones used in speech to shift meaningto say nothing of the thousands of characters that must be memorized to achieve true literacy. Politics threw up another impediment. During the Cold War, when China was sealed off from the rest of the world, fluency in Chinese was considered, at best, an arcane academic pursuit for diplomats and students of acupuncture or Tang poetry. At worst, it was considered the language of the enemy. Despotic right-wing governments in some Asian countries, fearing their regimes would be toppled by the spread of communism, thought of Chinese-speakers as Maoist revolutionary threats. In Indonesia, Suharto banned Chinese-language publications and closed almost all Mandarin schools. But after then President Abdurrahman Wahid lifted the ban in 1999, six universities added Mandarin courses, as did dozens of smaller language centers.
Now, students who can put "fluent in Mandarin" on their résumés are seeing the payoff. Jakarta resident Imam Fanani, 26, was initially discouraged when he began hunting for work last year because many of his friends had been unable to find good-paying jobs. But a day after he submitted his résumé to several employment websites, he had three job offers. His edge? A degree from the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. "There is no discrimination against the language anymore," says Imam, who now works at a conglomerate owned by an Indonesian Chinese. "In fact, you could even say it's become kind of fashionable."
It's in vogue even in the backwaters of Asia's least developed countries. In 2004, China became Cambodia's biggest foreign investor, and some Cambodians now think Mandarin is as useful as English. The Chea family in Phnom Penh decided to spread its bets: Rotha, a 13-year-old boy, studies English while his 12-year-old sister, Sophea, learns Mandarin. Spending money on language lessons has earned their parents, Chea Song and his wife Sotheary, the ridicule of neighbors, who point out that the Cheas don't have a proper housethey live in their open-air coffee-and-noodle shop. "Some people criticize me, saying I have no home to live in but I send my daughter to learn Chinese," says Chea Song. "But even if I'm poor, I want the best education for my children." English may help his son find a job with one of the many aid agencies working in Cambodia, or allow him to pursue medical studies, Chea reckons. His daughter's Mandarin skills may land her a job in a private business or as a translator. As he sees it, "The whole world is speaking Chinese."