Learning Chinese is hot, but you would hardly know it here in Taiwan, where many people want to speak English. From kindergarten to business school they believe it is the key to higher earnings. They may be right, but the gains of teaching the world to speak their own language have been relatively neglected and the government is scratching its head and wondering what to do about it.
A year ago, at the same time as civil servants were being offered extra credits for promotion if they passed English proficiency tests, the Ministry of Education (MOE) cracked down on private Chinese-learning schools. Granted, some of these institutes were fronts for getting visas, with students who never turned up for class and instead worked illegally. The crackdown inevitably led to a reduction in the number of private schools and students.
Visas have been a problem for years. Add to this the introduction of another Romanization system and learning traditional Chinese characters, as opposed to China's simplified script, and the difficulties of learning Mandarin in Taiwan are compounded.
The numbers tell the story. Chinese is the most popular mother tongue in the world with over 1 billion speakers, but it is one of the five most difficult languages to learn, according to the US State Department's Foreign Service Institute.
The Office of Chinese Language Council International, or Hanban, believes there are around 30 million people learning Chinese as a second language (CSL). It estimates that 100 million will be doing so in four years. China's Ministry of Education Web site claims "there are more than 330 colleges offering [teaching Chinese as a foreign language] programs in China, receiving about 40,000 foreign students to learn Chinese every year."
From America to Zimbabwe, students are studying Mandarin because it is seen as becoming the language for business in the 21st century, in the same way that English and arguably Japanese was in the last century. In the US, Chinese immersion classes are the rage and there are not enough teachers to supply demand. In New York Chinese nannies are charging up to US$70,000 a year. In South Korea there has been a 66 percent increase in students learning Chinese over the past five years; in Japan the number of secondary schools offering Mandarin has tripled since the 1990s. The same pattern has emerged in Europe and in the UK the number of students studying Chinese has doubled in the past five years.
Over the past three years the number of students studying Chinese in Taiwan has risen by around 1,500 to 9,143, according to MOE statistics. This is a 5 percent annual increase, but set against the explosion in demand for learning Chinese it is a meager return. Taiwan should be riding the wave of learning Mandarin, instead it appears to be floundering around in the shallows.
"There are a lot of complaints about how hard it is to study in Taiwan," said Professor Chou Chung-tien (周中天), director of Taiwan's oldest Chinese-language learning institute, the Mandarin Training Center at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU). "I believe it is national policy to have more people learn Chinese in Taiwan because it is the best way to promote Taiwan."
Teaching Chinese to foreigners should be a no-brainer. Taiwan is rich in well-qualified teachers and educational resources. It is a way of fostering relations in a world where it has little diplomatic space because of historical problems with China. It could also be a valuable source of revenue in the burgeoning service sector in which it needs to shine, since most of its factories are relocating to China. The British, for example, have done well out of exporting English to the world.