In recent years, the popularity of the Chinese language has gained momentum in line with the international community's growing concerns about China. Many countries and regions have established Chinese language courses at higher education institutions and secondary schools. More and more students are choosing China as the destination for their overseas study. According to the China Scholarship Council, in 1991 there were only 11,000 foreign students studying in China. In 2000 the number increased to 20,000. In 2005, 140,000 overseas students chose to study in China. This year there are more than 160,000 students studying in China.
To meet the needs of students learning Chinese around the world, the Office of the International Chinese Language Council has established 111 Confucius Institutes or Confucius Classrooms across the world. In the past, it was easy enough to find Chinese restaurants wherever we went in the world. Now, we can expect to hear people say hello to us in Chinese. More and more people are interested in China and want to learn the Chinese language. To accommodate this new trend, domestic Chinese language teaching has quickly shifted its focus from home to overseas.
China started to teach Chinese as a foreign language more than 50 years ago. During those 50 years, it has gained valuable experience in Chinese language teaching and published a large number of books and research materials related to it. This has laid a very solid foundation for the promotion of the Chinese language in the international community. In fact, it was not anticipated that the Chinese language would become so popular within such a short period of time. Tremendous changes have caused a shift in attitude. Some people are excited, believing that the era of China is coming. Some are delighted, happy about China's increasingly important international status. Some are anxious, because Chinese is still not widely spoken in the international arena. Others are impatient, hoping to teach millions of people to speak Chinese within several years. In any case, no one is indifferent.
The situation must be addressed rationally. In 2000 when the number of foreign students studying in the United States exceeded 500,000, many more people opted to study English as a foreign language rather than Chinese. France, Germany, Japan, Spain and other developed countries were also trying to promote their national languages. How can we maintain the momentum of the popularity of the Chinese language? How can we ensure a sustainable outreach of Chinese language across the world? We need to think about it carefully.
To be able to ask that Chinese be spoken as one of the world's international languages, like French and English, we still have many things to do. Behind the language is a rich and diverse culture. It is here that the charm of the Chinese language lies, but also the difficulty of learning it. Promoting the Chinese language and the Chinese culture is the duty of our generation. That non-native speakers might learn to speak elegant and standard Chinese is by no means an unrealistic dream. In some kindergartens in the United States, children have started learning Chinese. Many primary and secondary schools also offer Chinese language courses. In some parts of East Asia, Chinese has become a regional language. To meet the changes, we should improve our Chinese language teaching courses and corresponding research. We need to train more teachers, publish more up-to-date teaching materials and books, and introduce a more modern teaching method.
The author Cui Xiliang is President of Beijing Language and Culture University.