Saying “Global” in Chinese
How Beijing is making it easier for foreigners to learn its language.
Move over, English. There's a new language bidding for global status. With 1 billion chatterers, Mandarin already outstrips English as the most-spoken language in the world. However, nearly all the speakers are, well, Chinese. But now, Beijing is aiming to change that by promoting the study of Chinese around the world. Within the region, China has reached out to South Korea and Thailand. It's extended a hand to major trading partners, such as France and the United States. The Chinese are even exporting Mandarin to such unlikely places as Kazakhstan and Mauritius.
Move over, English. There’s a new language bidding for global status. With 1 billion chatterers, Mandarin already outstrips English as the most-spoken language in the world. However, nearly all the speakers are, well, Chinese. But now, Beijing is aiming to change that by promoting the study of Chinese around the world. Within the region, China has reached out to South Korea and Thailand. It’s extended a hand to major trading partners, such as France and the United States. The Chinese are even exporting Mandarin to such unlikely places as Kazakhstan and Mauritius.
At the center of this effort is Guojia Hanban — the Beijing-based National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language. It estimates that 30 million people around the world are studying Chinese as a second language. By 2010, it hopes that number will jump to 100 million. To achieve that goal, Hanban is spending $12 million over the course of five years to open 100 Confucius Institutes around the world. Since the initiative began last year, these institutes have opened in places as diverse as South Africa, Sweden, and Uzbekistan. Similar to France’s Alliance Française or Germany’s Goethe-Institut, the Confucius Institute will focus on exporting language and culture. Some centers will offer a variety of language classes for adults; others will develop specialties such as teacher training. For instance, in Chicago, which has the largest public school Chinese program in the United States, the local Confucius Institute is offering workshops so parents can help their children (94 percent of whom are not Asian) with Chinese homework.
In addition to the Confucius Institutes, Hanban has several other programs already in place. It is donating textbooks to established programs. It is selecting, training, and paying living expenses for hundreds of Chinese volunteers to teach Mandarin in 23 different countries. In 2004, Hanban sent nearly 800 teachers abroad. Last year, that number increased to 1,042 teachers, and an army of 10,000 volunteers is waiting in the wings.
Conveniently, teaching Chinese fits hand-in-glove with Beijing’s foreign policy goals. It raises China’s geopolitical profile by asserting its culture and language globally, as befits a world power. "[China] wants the stature of a world civilization," says Oded Shenkar, Ohio State University professor and author of The Chinese Century. "Spreading the language is one way to do that." With the language push, China is able to cultivate influence in a soft, non-threatening way. And it seems to be working. "The Chinese have been very careful and thoughtful about assuaging the fears of the rest of the world," says Elizabeth Economy, director of the Asia program at the Council on Foreign Relations. "There’s a benign element of the language work, to help educate."
There are more subtle diplomatic benefits as well. The promotion of Mandarin builds ties with the overseas Chinese diaspora, which contributes an estimated 40 percent or more of investment capital on the mainland. China also gains an edge over Taiwan. During the Cold War, before the West established official ties with Beijing, Taipei was the primary source for Chinese-language education. Now, China and Hanban have usurped Taiwan’s role. Spreading the Chinese language stokes nationalist pride, too. "It rules according to an ideology that doesn’t exist anymore, and it’s left with two bases of legitimacy," says Shenkar. "One of them is economic prosperity. The other is nationalism." When everyone speaks Chinese, Beijing certainly will have something to feel good about.
More from Foreign Policy
Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America
The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense
If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.
Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War
Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.
How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests
And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.