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Want to study Chinese? Join the crowd

JAKARTA, Indonesia—English is the world's dominant language for business and culture, but with China's ascendance more and more people around the globe are taking up the challenge of learning to speak and read Chinese.

China's government is encouraging that enthusiasm through its Confucius Institutes for learning Chinese. Naming the schools after the sixth century B.C. sage disassociates them from Communist Party rule in China's one-party state. Confucianism, which espouses good governance and moral behavior, still underlies Chinese culture.

The first Confucius Institute was inaugurated in Seoul, South Korea, last November. Since then, the institutes have opened in cities such as Stockholm, Sweden; Perth, Australia; Nairobi, Kenya; and at the University of Maryland in College Park, just outside Washington.

The institutes, often within local universities, are modeled after the worldwide language programs of other countries, such as the British Council, Germany's Goethe Institutes, the Alliance Francaise and the Cervantes Institute of Spain.

Even in countries with no Confucius Institutes, such as Indonesia, private schools that teach Chinese flourish, and still can't meet the demand.

"The people think that if they can learn Chinese, they will have better chances with the boss," said Eric Pangkey, the manager of one of five branches of the Chinese Education Center, a private school that he said had seen enrollment double to 2,000 in a year.

Young university graduates in Southeast Asia, many of whom already speak English, often are choosing to polish their Chinese.

"Most of my friends, after they finish their degrees in Malaysia, are going to Beijing to learn Mandarin (the official Chinese dialect). It's getting more important for business," said Christine Rudi, who just graduated with a marketing degree in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital.

The number of foreign students studying in China soared from 78,000 in 2003 to 110,800 in 2004, surpassing the flow of Chinese students to foreign universities.

The rage to learn Chinese, a language spoken by nearly a quarter of humanity, still doesn't match the dominance of English as the world's language. One billion people worldwide are thought to be non-native students of English, a language that permeates international business, diplomacy and culture. Estimates of the number of people who study Chinese worldwide range from 20 million to 30 million, many of them Chinese descendants in Southeast Asia.

Yet the numbers don't convey the urgency that many people feel to learn Chinese or the inroads that Chinese has made. Its usage is spreading wildly in the digital world. Within a decade, Chinese may overtake English as the most used language on the Internet. Chinese is now the third most spoken language in Canada, after English and French.

In the United States, some 2 million of the nation's 290 million people speak Chinese, more than four-fifths of them of Chinese descent.

Interest is surging, though, and school administrators are responding. Barely 200 public schools in the United States offer Chinese. But when the New York-based College Board surveyed schools on interest in offering Chinese, 2,400 replied that they wanted such classes, said Wang Luxin, a director of China's National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language.

Nowhere is the interest more evident than in Chicago, where 20 public schools now offer Chinese, and 10 more may be added next year. China supplies texts and partially funds the program.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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