News / Asia

Interest in Learning Chinese May be Growing Exponentially

A child walks past large Chinese characters which partly reads
A child walks past large Chinese characters which partly reads "Study!" at the New Century Experimental School in Qikeshu village on the outskirts of Beijing (File Photo)

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Ira Mellman

Chinese media has come out with a report saying that more than 40 million foreigners around the world are learning Chinese. The reports quote a senior official with the Confucius Institute Headquarters.

We decided to see how fast Chinese language learning is growing in the United States. We checked with a company called Rosetta Stone, which offers computer language learning services in 24 languages, including Chinese.

A spokesperson told us Chinese is among the top 10 languages sold with a huge increase over a one year period from 2008 to 2009 in corporate sales, an increase of 719 percent.

We also spoke with Chris Livaccari, Associate Director of Education and Chinese language initiatives for the New York based Asia Society.

Ira Mellman: Chris, why such a rapid growth in people wanting to learn Chinese?

Chris Livaccari: "I think in some ways there is an analogy with what happened with Japanese in the 1980s.  And I've also been a Japanese language teacher, so I've seen this from both perspectives.  I think in the United States if you look at the headlines over the last several years, it's clear that there is a perception among Americans that China is the place that is going to define our future."

"And that the relationship between the United States and China is the most important bilateral relationship in the world right now. And so I think that realization, or that perception among Americans, has really fueled the growth of Chinese language programs, Again, much as we saw the growth of Japanese language programs in the 1980s and 1990s."

Ira Mellman: "Is Chinese a difficult language for an English speaker to learn?"

Chris Livaccari: "It is in some ways and in some ways not so difficult.  The biggest challenge for American learners of Chinese is definitely the writing system. And the Chinese writing system is difficult even for Chinese people. As you know, it is a character-based language and it is completely different really from every other language that is in use in the world today for that reason. If you look at the scripts used in every other language used on on earth right now, for the most part they all come from a common ancestor."

"An alphabetic or syllabic system probably developed in Mesopotamia several thousand years ago. But Chinese is really unique. it takes an incredible investment of time and energy for students to know enough Chinese characters to be literate. So, it's a great challenge, but it comes with great opportunities. Because learning Chinese characters use other parts of your brain and develop other academic skills that other languages simply don't touch on. So I think it is a difficult language, that's obvious. But I think there is a real benefit to investing in the study of Chinese."

Ira Mellman: "And what is that?"

Chris Livaccari: "I think there are a number of things, but I would say one is many peole have commented on the spectacular success of China in the education realm, especially if you look at math and science and if you look at the results of the PISA exams that were released last Wednesday, the spectacular success in science and math in particular among Chinese-speaking nations, has been observed as potentially something that is contributed to by the fact that Chinese students are trained from a very early age at things like pattern recognition and memorization through their learning of Chinese characters. So I think there is a link in terms of students' cognitive skills development that is trained by learning Chinese characters."

"The other thing that is very important I think about learning Chinese and Chinese characters for American students, in terms of the benefit, is that because Chinese is such a different language, structurally,  from English, it really enables students to see things from a completely different perspective. And helps them understand the idea of multiple perspectives and multiple viewpoints. So that, I think, for American students is the most important benefit to learn a challenging language that can build their confidence and learn a language that is quite different that can open their eyes to how language works and how multiple perspectives work."

Ira Mellman: Do you think Chinese learning is the fastest growing language learning in the world?

Chris Livaccari: "I don't have clear evidence as to if it is the fastest growing language in the world. But I wouldn't be surprised.  In addition to the Rosetta Stone numbers you mentioned, I believe the American Council of the Teaching Foreign Languages has just released a report that suggests also Chinese the fastest growing language, with a growth rate of 195%. That's just talking about the United States.  But I think it is clear that if it is not the fastest growing language in every country in the world, I think is is probably, overall, the fastest growing language in the world."

Chris Livaccari is Associate Director of Education and Chinese language initiatives for the New York-based Asia Society.

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