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The first bilingual English-Chinese primary school in Europe was opened in the UK this September, Financial Times reported. According to media, a rising number of upper-class British parents are investing in their children's Chinese language ability. Many Western celebrities, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Malia Obama, daughter of the former US President Barack Obama, and President Trump's granddaughter Arabella Kushner are also learning Putonghua.

A foreigner writes Chinese on a blackboard. Photos: VCG, Chen Xia and Xiang Jun/GT

Dreaming in Chinese

In 2005, only 200 American education institutions offered Chinese courses; by 2015, the number had surged to 4,000. Approximately 50,000 American students in 2015 adopted Chinese as their compulsory second language, according to Asia Society, a nonprofit organization.

The Global Times recently held interviews to glean some insight into the Chinese language abilities of random foreigners found on the streets of Shanghai, and ask their opinions about learning Asian languages.

Arjian from the Netherlands has been working in China for a few years. He said his level of Chinese is very basic. "I only speak a few words like 'nihao' and 'zaoshanghao,'" he told the Global Times. "I haven't started any lessons yet."

Irish Katie said she speaks a little Chinese. "My level is not so good, because it's been a long time since I studied Chinese," she added. Her friend Rebecca, who also comes from Ireland, said she has passed HSK 5 and is able to deal with most daily dialogue in Chinese.

Laura from France said her Chinese level is almost zero, but she can say "hello" and "thank you" in Putonghua. Likewise, Dawn from Ontario, Canada, said her Chinese level is nil and can only say "hello."

Nonetheless, each of those interviewees said that they feel like an increasing number of foreigners are learning Chinese. Arjian, for instance, said a lot of his non-Chinese colleagues are now attending Chinese lessons. "They usually learn through one-on-one lessons with a Chinese teacher," he said.

Likewise, Rebecca said she attended a Chinese learning program at her university in Cork, Ireland, in 2010, where 20 students in the program had the opportunity to study at Shanghai University for one year.

"Now the school does that every year. They send students from Cork to Shanghai all the time," Rebecca said. "There were only 20 when we did it, but I'm sure now there are a lot more than that every year."

Katie said she lives in Edinburgh, where many local students are studying Putonghua at the city's universities. "I have some friends that study Putonghua and then they came to Shanghai," she added.

Another interviewee, Alberto from Mexico, said that many people in his country have started learning Chinese, which they expect will become the new world language.

"For example, my sister is learning Chinese. She is now working in a company that needs Chinese. If you do business with Chinese people, you need to know their language," he told the Global Times.

In contrast, Canadian Dawn said she wasn't aware of any Canadians learning Chinese. "But it probably is a good idea, because there are a lot more Chinese people there than we realize," she said.

A Chinese dictionary

Writing and pronunciation

In terms of the challenges of learning Chinese, our interviewees said that writing and pronunciation are the most difficult aspects.

For instance, both Rebecca and Katie said it took them a long time to learn the tones of Chinese words and how to write the characters. "The tones, I hate tones," Rebecca laughed. "Tones and writing are hard, of course."

Likewise, Mexican Alberto said Chinese characters are very different from other languages, and that it is impossible for him to remember the exact tones and characters of each Chinese word.

"It's not only about learning new words or new grammar; anybody can do that. How to pronounce properly, that's really a challenge," Arjian told the Global Times.

Arjian also pointed out that Chinese is fundamentally different from European or American languages, and that the inner logic of thinking in the Chinese language is also different from other languages.

"This is also why learning Chinese is so important, because by learning the language, you will learn a bit of the culture and the way of thinking in China," he added.

In addition, the lack of Chinese language environment is another difficulty for foreigners studying Chinese. Canadian interviewee Dawn, for instance, said she does not personally know any Chinese people, so she has no opportunity to practice with native speakers.

A foreign boy writes Chinese on a blackboard.

A vital language

Despite the challenges of learning Chinese, all our interviewees said they believe Putonghua is becoming a much more significant language in the globalized world.

"I think learning Chinese absolutely is important if you really want to engage with Chinese teams or with Chinese customers, colleagues and friends. You have to learn at least a bit of the language. I am convinced about that," Arjian told the Global Times.

Likewise, Rebecca said that if foreigners wish to do business or build up professional relationships in China, it is necessary for them to learn some Chinese.

"I think China is becoming a bigger trade partner with a lot of countries [and regions] and there is more cultural exchange between China and Western countries," Katie said. "So it is really important that English isn't just the only language that we interact with, because a lot of Chinese people maybe don't know English. So to know both is really important."

French interviewee Laura said she feels English is still the most important foreign language in most countries and regions, at least in Europe. "But maybe in the future it's going to change," she added. "We have more and more Chinese tourists in France, so it's getting more and more important to learn some Chinese to do some business, to work or for other purposes."

Dawn believes learning any language as a second language is important for anybody, because it tends to give a person more advantages no matter where he or she goes. "Like for me, if I could speak Chinese, I would be doing much better here in China," she said.

Scan to watch a video of the entire interview






Katie (left) and Rebecca


Laura (left)