As more people study Chinese, can it overtake English as a global lingua franca?
When Morgan Jones first started learning Chinese at Middlebury College in the US northeastern state of Vermont, there were only 10 students for that first year class. By the time he graduated from the college, the students in that same first year class reached 60.
“That means the number grew to at least six times the number since I started,” recalled Jones, now Chief Operating Officer of the US-China Strong Foundation, during a recent interview with the Xinhua News Agency.
The Washington DC-based non-profit organization is leading a Chinese language education initiative called “1 Million Strong.”
The initiative seeks to expand to 1 million the number of US K-12 students learning Mandarin by 2020.
“We’ve definitely seen a lot of growth initially, when we announced the program [in 2015], there were somewhere around 200,000 Americans learning Chinese. There are currently 400,000 learning Chinese,” said Jones, who speaks fluent Mandarin himself.
“For the first time across the nation, you saw Chinese instruction in elementary schools, middle schools and high schools ... I think, it continues to grow,” Charles Laughlin, East Asian Studies and Department Chair, University of Virginia, told Xinhua via phone.
“The most significant new aspect of this Chinese Fever was that it went down to the level of primary and secondary school education,” said Laughlin, who specializes in modern Chinese literature.
Chinese was categorized along with Arabic, Swahili and Icelandic as a “Less Commonly Taught Language” in the US when Laughlin was in college in the US state of Minnesota about 30 years ago,
Now, the world’s oldest written language is the second most commonly spoken non-English language, only after Spanish, in the US.
“There was an English fever in China when I left for the US, now we are seeing a Chinese Fever here,” said Chen Jinguo, a Chinese teacher with the China Institute, a non-profit organization in the US dedicated to advancing a deeper understanding of China.
Chen, who immigrated to the US in the early 1990s, noted young Chinese have been furiously learning English for years, particularly after the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
It is estimated about 300 million Chinese, nearly as many people as there are in the US, are English language learners in China.
Meanwhile, there were some 353,000 Chinese students studying in the US, accounting for 34 percent of the total number of international students in the country, according to a report published by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement in May 2016.