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The Factors Fueling America's Interest In Learning Mandarin Chinese

CUSEF Mandarin intermediate class
CUSEF Mandarin intermediate class

This month we are introducing a new series of blog posts focused on learning Mandarin Chinese, which will cover topics ranging from America’s growing interest in studying Mandarin, to what to expect from your first Mandarin language course. Join us as we explore the many benefits and exciting challenges that come along with learning a new language and discovering a new culture!

Global interest in learning Mandarin Chinese has grown exponentially in the last decade. According to Tian Xuejun, China’s vice minister of education, in 2021 over 70 countries around the world have added Mandarin to their national education curriculum, with over 4,000 universities adding Mandarin course options, totaling an estimated 25 million students around the world learning Chinese as a second language.

There are many ongoing global initiatives to help make Mandarin courses more accessible to students around the world. In December of 2021, the International Chinese Language Education Week (CLEC) was held in Beijing, which featured over forty different events aimed at sharing best practices, achievements, and goals going forward to further develop international Chinese language education.

The United States is one country in particular that has shown a lot of interest in learning Mandarin in the past decade. Starting in 2015, there was a huge push by the U.S. government and nonprofit organizations for Americans to learn Mandarin, one million Americans to be exact. President Xi and former U.S. President Obama collaborated on the One Million Strong initiative, which aimed “to dramatically increase the number of students studying Chinese at K–12 schools from its current estimate of 200,000 to 1 million by 2020.” This initiative was supported by 100,000 Strong, a non-profit organization focused on fostering positive U.S.-China relations. The initiative has since been transitioned into a private nonprofit not affiliated with the U.S. State department, but the U.S. government continues to encourage the expansion of Chinese language studies in America.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama speaks with elementary school students during their Mandarin class. [Photo Credit: CGTN]

In September of 2021, the U.S. the House of Representatives introduced a Bill called the White House Accountability for Language Diversity Act. The bill was aimed at acknowledging the language diversity in the U.S., stating that there is no one official language and that all government websites should be offered in the five most popular languages following English, which are Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and French.

Despite government encouragement, a study by LingoAce found that only 20% of American students under the age of 18 are studying a foreign language in school, and only 3.5% are learning Mandarin Chinese. However, the study also found that Mandarin immersion programs for K-12 students has been growing on average 16% a year for the last decade.

In 2017, it was reported that there were 400,000 students in the U.S. studying Mandarin, doubled from 200,000 in just 2015. Today in America we see Mandarin courses being offered in younger and younger grades, with students now entering University with a higher level of Mandarin proficiency, giving Universities an opportunity to expand their language offerings to more advanced levels.

There are several factors that have led to American students growing interest in learning the Mandarin language. For one, The U.S. and China have strong economic ties, opening a wide door of job opportunities for students upon graduation. Second, learning the language has become more convenient in recent years with the development of phone applications and more widely available Chinese learning programs, making a language that once seemed inaccessible, readily available to anyone who wishes to learn! Third, knowing the Mandarin language allows Americans to immerse into Chinese culture in a deeper and more meaningful way, meaning that those who wish to visit or live in China will have a much more fulfilling experience and better understand Chinese culture through its language.

An American student attends a Mandarin course. [Photo Credit:]

There are many benefits to learning the world's most widely spoken language, with many students considering it to be an investment in their future, and others wanting to get closer to their roots. Reid Chunn is a student at Harris-Stowe State University, who attended CUSEF’s Spring 2021 beginner Mandarin course, and is now enrolled in the first-ever intermediate course. Reid first became interested in learning Mandarin because of his surname, Chunn. An initial interest into Reid’s unknown family origins sparked a deeper passion for Chinese culture, which eventually led to Reid enrolling in CUSEF’s Mandarin course.

While the pandemic has put a lot of in-person classes and study abroad opportunities on hold, Mandarin learners say one of the best ways to advance your language skills to a new level is through cultural immersion. Destiny Jackson is a senior from Bowie State University that is currently enrolled in CUSEF’s beginner and intermediate Mandarin courses. Density spent a semester studying abroad in Harbin, China, and says that, “Mandarin has given me opportunities to branch out and make friends with people from different countries and cultures. Studying abroad in Harbin and being acclimated to the culture in person has made me more comfortable with travel and networking with East Asian culture in general.” Upon returning to the States, she even was able to use her Mandarin skills to help out a Chinese-speaking customer at her job!

CUSEF Mandarin intermediate class

After deciding you would like to study abroad in China, the next big question is which city should you live in? With over 500 cities across the country, this is no easy decision, but cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou boast some of the country's best Universities, serving as the economic, tech, and cultural hubs of China. Depending on your learning goals and career aspirations, there is sure to be a city in China to match your interests.

According to experts, it takes approximately 88 weeks of full-time study for a native English speaker to learn Mandarin Chinese. Digvijay Mohite, a student at University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, suggests that in order to help further you along in your language studies, surround yourself with native speakers whenever possible so you can practice everyday conversation, and apply the skills learned in a classroom setting to the real world. Density also recommends making use of phone-based apps that help you with memorization and writing on the go!

If you have ever been curious about what it might be like to learn Mandarin for the first time, make sure to tune into the rest of our series where we will take a look into the course curriculum, and let you know what to expect after signing up for your first Mandarin language course!

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