(2 of 3)
eager to assert itself internationally, the Chinese government is itself on a drive to promote Mandarin abroad in hopes of putting it on a par with English. "Promoting the use of Chinese among overseas people has gone beyond purely cultural issues," said Hu Youqing, a National People's Congress deputy and Chinese-language professor at Nanjing University, in an interview with the government-owned China Daily. "It can help build up our national strength and should be taken as a way to develop our country's 'soft power.'"
To that end, over the past two years Beijing has opened language and cultural centers called Confucius Institutesmodeled on Spain's Instituto Cervantes or Germany's Goethe-Institutin more than 30 countries, including Australia, Japan, Kenya, the U.S. and Sweden. China has also deployed more than 2,000 Peace Corps-like volunteers to teach Mandarin overseas, mostly in Asian nations such as Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea. Meanwhile, back home, China has been rapidly upgrading Mandarin-language schools to handle a rising influx of overseas students. In Beijing, for example, Capital Normal University's North Number 1 campus features a pair of new gray steel and glass towers with polished stone floors and an indoor swimming pool. China's vastly ambitious goal is to have 100 million foreigners studying Mandarin by the end of the decade. "China is like an imperial civilization, or the U.S. or Britain or France. It tends to view the world on its own terms," says Nicholas Ostler, the British author of Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. "In China, people talk in Chinese. More and more, they expect others to speak to them in Chinese, too."
China's efforts to spread Mandarin are managed from the 17th floor of an office building in the northwest corner of Beijing. There, school officials from around the world come to talk with Xu Lin, a voluble woman with an intense gaze who heads the National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language. On a hot, smoggy day last fall, she hosted a delegation of American educational and business leaders, including a former assistant secretary of education and school superintendents from New York and California. They sat at attention as Xu outlined her agency's plans for teaching Chinese to the world. To close the meeting, Xu signed an agreement with the commissioner of education in Kentucky to help his state develop a Chinese-language program. Xu and the commissioner, Gene Wilhoit, shook hands and Xu presented him with a gift: a digital wand that reads Chinese characters aloud when dragged across text. Wilhoit tried it out. An uncomfortable silence followed. "I think it's broken," one of Xu's subordinates muttered. Someone fiddled with the gadget, and Wilhoit tried again. There was a pause, and then a mechanical voice droned out one of the phrases that Xu deemed critical to survival in China: "Ganbei!"
Kentucky may have to rely heavily on such technology to teach students to say "cheers" in Chinese. The state has only a handful of Mandarin classes, such as a program that started up in January at a Louisville elementary school, because there aren't enough trained Mandarin teachers. The problem is widespread in the U.S. According to a 2004 survey by the College Board, a nonprofit organization that conducts college placement exams, 2,400 high schools wanted to offer Advanced Placement classes in Chinese, far more than the few hundred schools the organization expected. "The level of interest is high, but the level of expertise is low," says Scott McGinnis, an academic adviser at the Defense Language Institute in Washington. In January, U.S. President George W. Bush announced plans to spend $114 million next year to boost the number of instructors and augment educational programs for "critical need" languages including Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Farsi.
For now, Kentucky educators are relying in large part on young Chinese volunteers such as Zhao Jing, a 29-year-old from the northern coastal city of Tianjin. A year ago, Zhao's knowledge of Kentucky was limited to visits to Ken De Jithe Chinese name for Kentucky Fried Chicken. But after being recruited by the Kentucky Department of Education to develop the state's Mandarin curriculum, she drives hours to rural towns to talk with students and teachers about China. At noon on a recent Monday, Zhao carried her laptop to an audio-visual studio in the state education building in Frankfort, set up a PowerPoint presentation on an octagonal table, and waited for her students. One by one, department employees filed into the room and took seats around the table for the twice-weekly Chinese class. "Ni hao," they said, and then they began a lesson on the Chinese New Year and signs of the zodiac. When Zhao asked department policy advisor Debbie Hendricks, 51, to say her birth animal, Hendricks laughed, "I'm in over my head."