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March of Mandarin: the Chinese study travel market boom

The study of Chinese as a foreign language has become one of the world’s largest language learning markets in just 10 years of exponential growth. Kick-started in 2004 by the launch of the Confucius Institute programme, which aims to promote understanding of Chinese language and culture around the globe, the sector has seen rapid expansion both at home and abroad.

"We expect to see a dramatic increase in foreign student numbers on our programmes over coming years"

As more than 480 Confucius Institutes have opened their doors in 100 countries, foreign students have flocked to China to take Mandarin programmes at universities and private schools, stimulating vigorous growth in the domestic market.

Today, at least 400 Chinese universities offer extra-mural programmes in Chinese as a foreign or second language, with courses ranging in duration from four weeks to four years. Meanwhile, a vibrant sector of private language schools has sprung up alongside them to cater for the specific needs of foreign students.

Arguably the most successful plank of China’s drive to project soft power around the globe, the boom has seen the number of people taking the Chinese Proficiency Test – or Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) – rise more than fivefold from 117,660 in 2005 to 750,000 in 2010.

Professor Si Chung Mou

Professor Si Chung Mou

“Prestigious universities are the leading providers of intensive Mandarin courses both in Hong Kong and on the mainland,” says Professor Si Chung-mou, head of the Hong Kong Institute of Education’s department of Chinese language studies.

“But foreign students don’t usually enrol in the programmes directly with the universities. Agents and learning centres will often act as a go-between and liaise with the university to provide a course.”

Beijing, Beijing Foreign Language, Beijing Normal, Tsinghua, and Renmin are among the most sought-after universities for intensive Mandarin, says Si. Over recent years, several of these institutions have also set up Chinese language programmes for business or international trade, which admit many students who are sponsored by their companies.

Students can apply to extra-mural Mandarin programmes through China’s University and College Admissions System CUCAS, an online admissions portal operated by the China Education Association for International Exchange (CEAIE). The portal holds details of 521 Mandarin summer camps, 237 short courses of less than three months, 952 courses lasting one semester to a year, 146 courses in business Chinese and 69 courses preparing students for the HSK.

CUCAS also works with 14 private language schools in China, including both home-grown schools such as That’s Mandarin and global chains such as EF.

Intensive study of Mandarin in China was pioneered by the Ivy League universities Princeton and Stanford. In 1961, Stanford University launched a centre in Taiwan that rapidly gained a reputation as an elite centre for intensive training of leading Sinologists.

It has evolved into two leading intensive Mandarin programmes, the International Chinese Language Programme at National Taiwan University in Taipei and the Inter-University Programme for Chinese Language Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, which is now run in association with the University of California at Berkeley.

LTL Mandarin School (Live the Language) says students become part of a family during their stay

LTL Mandarin School (Live the Language) says students become part of a family during their stay

Private schools typically position themselves as providers dedicated to meeting foreign learners’ full spectrum of needs ranging from small group tuition and appropriate pedagogy to support with travel, accommodation, visas and social and cultural activities.

Andreas Laimboeck, owner of LTL Mandarin School in Beijing’s Central Business District, says a “24/7 service and support” package including homestay provision and small group classes underpins all its programmes, which attract some 500 students a year.

“Most students here refer to their classmates and the team as the ‘LTL Family’,” he says. “I, the teachers and the team have lunch together with students, the work and student rest areas are connected and we have a very active social programme in which teachers and team members participate.”

Providing students with a “home away from home” is very important in China because of its wide cultural differences from the Western countries of which most students are citizens, he adds.

That’s Mandarin, which has centres in Beijing, Shanghai and Qingdao, offers programmes in general, business and professional Mandarin and academic director Wan Xin says: “Our goal is not only to make learning Chinese easier for our students, but also to make it more interesting and enjoyable. Our “link-word” method helps students to remember new words and characters quickly and our storytelling method helps students use those new words to express themselves just as quickly.”

“Providing students with a “home away from home” is very important in China because of its wide cultural differences”

“More and more foreign students come to China every year and more and more Mandarin schools [are being set up],” says Wan. “We need to keep innovating to improve our competitive edge.”

Indeed, growth has been so strong in mainland China that some home-grown schools have set up branches abroad. Mandarin House, a pioneer of the sector that was set up in 2004, now has branches in London and New York as well as six in mainland China and one in Hong Kong.

New universities set up in China under partnerships between Western and Chinese institutions are also building up their provision of intensive Mandarin. Xi’an Jiaotong- Liverpool University’s (XJTLU) language centre offers extra-mural Mandarin programmes at four levels of one semester to one year in duration that are taken by some 80 to 150 students a year.

tea making Taiwan

Learning the art of tea making at Taiwan Chinese Academy

Students at both private schools and public institutions usually work towards the six levels of the HSK, administered by the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language or Hanban, which also sets standards for teacher qualifications.

While the Chinese government is leading the development of Chinese as a foreign language through such centralised initiatives, the lure of learning Mandarin in an authentic Chinese-speaking country is not limited to mainland China. Some Westerners are attracted to the more modernised societies of Taiwan and Hong Kong because they provide a more accessible study environment, despite traditional characters as opposed to simplified characters being used in both settings.

“Many Westerners come to Hong Kong to learn Mandarin because it’s more accessible”

There has been a big increase in the number of people wanting to study Mandarin in Hong Kong over the past three to four years, says Mini Cheung Tsz-wai, senior course consultant at Hong Kong Language School.

HKLC now admits some 300-400 students from abroad per year, who typically take intensive Mandarin courses of four or eight weeks, alongside its year-round courses in conversational Mandarin aimed at business people and others who travel regularly to mainland China. “Many Westerners come to Hong Kong to learn Mandarin because it’s more accessible and provides a stepping stone to the mainland,” she says. “It is more modern, more people speak English and they find the city is more manageable to live in.”

Rising demand over recent years has prompted the Taiwan Chinese Academy in Taipei to open a second branch in Tianmu to serve expats in the north of the city. TCA managing director David Chung says: “Having the second location gives us the range to cover the majority of northern Taiwan with our ever-popular Mandarin programme.”

There are many advantages to choosing Taiwan over China for students who wish to study Chinese in an immersive environment, he says. Past and present students have cited better air quality as the number one factor, with the friendliness of Taiwanese people, easier visa procedures and safe living environment also playing a part in their decision.

Learning about the culture at That's Mandarin school

Preparing Chinese dumplings at That’s Mandarin school

Requirements around teaching qualifications are evolving as the sector does. XJTLU’s manager for languages other than English, Shen Xuanying, says teachers at its language centre must have a Master’s degree in teaching Chinese or linguistics and most have one or two years’ prior experience teaching in a Confucius Institute or another university.

All universities in Hong Kong require Chinese language teachers to have a teaching qualification and, while there are currently no binding certification requirements on universities in mainland China, moves are afoot to tighten up the rules, says Professor Si.

“This is all part of the professionalization of the Chinese as a foreign and second language market,” says Si. “We foresee a great demand for these teachers.”

Shen points to major new education agreements struck by China last month [Sept 2015] with the United States and Britain as a signal of the positive outlook for continuing growth in the Chinese as a foreign language market.

US President Barack Obama’s pledged to get one million American schoolchildren learning Mandarin by 2020 during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington and 23 education agreements on collaboration and exchange were struck at the eighth UK-China education summit in London.

Other initiatives include the US’s 100,000 Strong Foundation, which has the catchphrase “Investing in US-China relations, one student at a time” and Australia’s new Colombo Plan, which is focused on outbound mobility to Asia.

“In the light of these developments, we expect to see a dramatic increase in foreign student numbers on our programmes over coming years,” summarises Shen.

• This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in The PIE Review. To subscribe to our mail order quarterly magazine, please visit

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