Students seek the Great call of China

Growing numbers of westerners, especially Americans, are striving to learn how to speak Mandarin Chinese.

BEIJING // American Brian O'Keefe admits that, for some people, learning Chinese can be "kind of torture".

With four tones, characters that give no clue to pronunciation and next to nothing in common with many languages like English, Mandarin Chinese is not a language the faint-hearted can master. Yet despite the challenges, growing numbers of westerners, especially Americans, are striving to do just that.

"Americans have this sort of mystical fascination with the east. There was something about China that just captured my imagination," said Mr O'Keefe.

The 35-year-old, from Alabama, once worked as an English teacher in China. Last year he gave up his job in the US to spend a year at Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU), improving his Mandarin.

There are many others like Mr O'Keefe looking to perfect their language skills.

The number of students enrolled in Chinese classes at US colleges jumped by 114 per cent in 11 years, from 28,456 in 1998 to 60,976 in 2009.

Over the same period, the number of Americans studying Arabic in US colleges increased seven-fold, although the total is just half that for Chinese.

At BLCU, Americans make up the third largest group of overseas students, after Japanese and Koreans, and they outnumber all students from European countries.

The university declined to give actual figures.

For some Americans, a fascination with eastern culture drives their interest in Chinese.

Others believe the interdependence of the world's two largest economies means the language will open up careers for them.

Between 2001 and 2010, annual China-US bilateral trade expanded from US$121.5 billion (Dh446.2bn) to $456.8bn, a growth of 276 per cent.

"When I came here, it was with the thought that the Chinese economy is getting so much larger. There doesn't seem to be any end to it," said Chelsea Adams, 22, a University of Washington economics graduate from Seattle who is just finishing a six-month Chinese course at BLCU sponsored by the Chinese government.

"I still think it will offer career opportunities. I would love to find a job where I could travel between Beijing and the States."

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest ever larger numbers of her compatriots feel the same way about the value of speaking Chinese.

When Ted Feierstein, 26, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in 2005, there were 60 students in his elementary Chinese class. Four years later, when his younger brother Michael started the same course, the number was 140.

After completing his degree, Mr Feierstein moved to China in 2009 and now works in Shanghai for a US alternative energy company.

Knowing Chinese offers the opportunity of "a more differentiated, more interesting global career".

"I enjoy my life here. I find it very engaging. Living in China, it's such a different culture, type of society," he said. "It's a country in hyper growth with a society that is changing very rapidly.

"To experience and engage very directly in this environment is extremely interesting."

Further economic growth in China is likely to ensure that the Chinese language continues to become more widely studied.

While Japanese remains the most popular non-European language in the US, with 73,434 enrolled students in 2009, Chinese is narrowing the gap as the country's economy continues to grow at near double-digit rates, while the Japanese economy remains stagnant.

Yet, as those who have taken Chinese classes know, learning the language to a level where you can immerse yourself in society requires dedication.

Only those interested in more than just making a living in China are likely to succeed.

Even eight years on from when he began studying Chinese, Matt Beyer, 26, a Beijing-based sports management executive, admits there are "plenty of situations where I don't feel like I express myself adequately".

"Especially with the Chinese characters, if you don't practise regularly, these skills can deteriorate fast," he said.

"I don't think anyone just learning for business will do well. You really have to have a passion for it."