Asked at the start of their first Chinese class what motivated them to take up the language, the students of the Institut de la Providence, a secondary school outside Namur in Belgium, give their new teacher varied answers.
“It’s a big country,” says one. “I’ve been to China and would like to go back,” ventures another.
The two dozen teenagers are part of a pilot project started this autumn in nine Belgian schools to promote Chinese language learning. More broadly, they are among hundreds of thousands of students in the West who are opting to learn Mandarin Chinese, often at the expense of traditional languages such as Spanish or German.
China’s rapid economic rise is gradually translating into a greater presence in European and U.S. classrooms, from a very small base as recently as 10 or 15 years ago.
From a marginal position 15 years ago, Chinese has imposed itself as the fourth major language behind French, Spanish and German, which, on current trends, it will overtake by the end of the decade.
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More often than not, it is a perception that knowledge of Chinese will be a vital asset in tomorrow’s job market that is driving demand, he says.
In July, Swedish education minister Jan Björklund floated the idea of every school offering Chinese classes to their students.
“Chinese will be much more important, from an economic perspective, than French or Spanish,” he told the Dagens Industri newspaper.
Another important factor is the financial support from Beijing, which has stepped up the activities of the Confucius Institutes, a network of cultural diplomacy bodies tasked with increasing china’s “soft power” around the globe.
hese institutes are often likened to Germany’s Goethe Institute or the Alliance Française but are considerably more aggressive in pushing Beijing’s worldview and shutting down discussion of any topics regarded as politically sensitive such as tibet or China’s human rights record.
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