English, French and Spanish have long been the primary foreign languages in German schools. But there's a new kid on the block: Chinese is popping up more frequently on class schedules as China's economic might grows.
It may be tough, but German students are determined to learn Chinese
While "¿cómo estás?" is still often heard in foreign language classrooms in German schools, these days some students are choosing to begin their lessons with a friendly "ni hao ma?" and those numbers look to be increasing.
While Chinese is not yet squeezing Spanish out of its place in the curriculum, the language of the Middle Kingdom has been added to the course offerings of about 80 schools in Germany, with more planning to begin teaching the language spoken by some 1.3 billion people on the planet.
"A lot of young people who begin taking the language say they are doing it for work," said Li Rong, who teaches her native tongue at the Chinese Center in Hanover. "They hope that in the future, if they can speak Chinese, they have better luck finding work."
Exotic, but why bother?
Up until a little over a decade ago, Chinese was considered by many to be an exotic and perhaps interesting language, but one which offered little practical benefit, and was seen as too impenetrable. But as China's reforms, begun in 1978, began to accelerate after 1993, Chinese has taken on a new attractiveness.
China's vast cities are growing at record rates thanks to the booming economy
Now, with an economy which grew to the world's fourth largest in 2005 -- just behind Germany's -- and a market of over a billion consumers, China is a rising economic superpower. The World Bank estimates that China will overtake the US as the world's economic leader by the year 2020.
Chinese, spoken in some form by one-fifth of the world's population, has gained new status around the world, and German schools have begun to recognize that the economic future might partially be written in characters.
"The idea that Chinese is important is slowly gathering force," said Tim Glaser, director of the German-Chinese Economic Association. "A few years ago, students could only take Chinese privately or on the side, but now schools are offering it as a regular subject."
Interest is there
At a few schools in Germany, such as the Annette von Droste Hülshoff secondary school in Münster, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, students preparing for college can choose Mandarin Chinese (China's main dialect) as their primary subject.
Three years ago, the school was the first to begin such a program, and administrators were initially concerned about what level of interest they would find among students. They offered a short introductory course to get students acquainted with the subject and worked in conjunction with other schools to make sure they had enough students to fill a class.
"But now it's developed so well, our own students fill the courses, which now run right alongside Spanish or French," said Bärbel Dahlhaus, the school's deputy director. "We think a lot of other schools in North Rhine-Westphalia are interested in adding Chinese. We get a lot of inquiries about the program."
She said students who emerge with a knowledge of Chinese will have an advantage that could improve their chances in Germany's tight labor market.
"I think that reason is even more important to the parents then it is to the students themselves," she said.
Just a trend?
Exact statistics are hard to come by about the number of schools offering Chinese and the rate of growth, partly because Germany's educational system is administered on the state level and, while some schools offer Chinese as central part of the core curriculum, others offer it on a casual basis or as an elective. Estimates run from around 80 schools, according to the Fachverband Chinesisch, an association of Chinese language groups, to more than 150 counted by the Chinese Embassy in Berlin.
Chinese teaching materials, once a rarity, are now becoming more common
"It's slowly picking up, and as long as China's economy keeps performing as it has been, the numbers will keep rising," said Rüdiger Breuer, a lecturer at the East Asia Studies department at the Ruhr University at Bochum. "But I'm convinced that as soon as an economic recession comes along, the numbers will go down again."
He points to the Japanese phenomenon the 1980s, when interest in that language peaked as Japan's economy throttled ahead of everyone else. But when Japan entered its long state of malaise in the 1990s, interest in Japan sagged along with its economy. Russia experienced a time of being en vogue in the 1990s, as its own turbocharged economy rocketed skyward. But as its jets cooled, so did Russian mania.
While Germany is waking up to the importance of teaching Chinese to the business movers and shakers of tomorrow, they've been slumbering a little longer than their neighbors. France is further ahead, with some 200 schools that offer Chinese. In Britain, it's already a requirement at some schools. At Brighton College in East Sussex, all students between 13 and 18 must take Mandarin, in addition to Latin, French or Spanish.
The school's director, Richard Cairns, decided on the requirement when China replaced the UK as the world's fourth biggest economy. "One of my most important tasks is to make students ready for the 21st century," he told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.
The continuing popularity of Chinese largely depends on the continuing strength of China's economy, experts say.
Some 300 schools in Britain have exchange programs with China and predictions are that in three years, more students will take university preparation exams in Chinese than in Spanish.
Wulff Rehfus, director of a high school in Düsseldorf, also called the Annette von Droste Hülshoff school, says he realizes that Germany has some catching up to do and that there are too few schools offering the language right now. He's hoping that will change, and is doing his part by introducing Chinese in his own classrooms this October. "It looks like China in the foreseeable future will overtake Europe economically," he said. "It's a good idea for Europeans to learn Chinese, because even when the topic is economics, it's good to know something about the mentality of the people and their culture when doing business with them."