The EU Observer
's Peter Ebels reports
on the latest incarnation of a standard trope: when one economy experiences significant troubles while an up-and-coming economic power with a language not yet widely spoken emerges, people in the first economy will learn the language of the second. Compare the vogue for Japanese in the 1990s. Also note that while the number of people fluent in Chinese may be growing, it is doing so from a low level.
Ever since Europe’s economy began spiralling downwards a growing number of people from Dublin to Athens is taking to learning the language of opportunity: Chinese.
Aggregate data are not available, but figures from local language centres across the continent suggest that the number of people in Europe enlisted in taking the official Chinese Proficiency Test - or HSK - over the last two years has grown by close to a factor five.
“I think the economic reason plays a very important role,” says Lili Lei of the Confucius Institute in Munich, where the number of students rose by more than 100 percent in 2011 and is expected to grow even further this year. “Many people learn Chinese because they must or want to work in China. Many even think [it] can bring them a better future.”
Lu Zhu of the Confucius Institute in Dublin, where attendance this year rose from an average of less than 50 students per year to almost 100 so far, says that “apparently, the job opportunity is the main reason [for the increase].”
In Athens, where Europe’s woes are most acute, the number of test-takers went from 100 in 2010, to 400 in 2011, to 300 so far this year. Asked whether the increase could have anything to do with Greece’s dire state of affairs, Xiuqin Yang, co-director of the city’s Confucius Institute, responded with a simple “yes.”
[. . . W]hile the actual knowledge of Chinese - or Mandarin, the official language of China - in Europe remains relatively low (in 2007, according to the EU’s latest figures, it was around 0.2 percent), the current crisis, China’s gradual rise towards superpowerdom, and its promotional efforts are proving an effective cocktail of incentives.