CHINA - Thanks to the growing ties between China and Latin American countries in recent years, demand for Chinese- language learning and cultural exchanges has surged in the region, as shown by the expansion of the Confucius Institute.
The Confucius Institute, a nonprofit public agency affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education, has built 29 branches in Latin America since 2006, when its first facility in the region opened in Mexico City, according to the Office of Chinese Language Council International, better known as the Hanban.
"We've seen a rapid growth of local residents' interests in learning Chinese and knowing more about China and its economic development, with China's cooperation with Latin American countries deepening a lot in all sectors over the years," said Zhu Yicheng, an official with Hanban's division of American and Oceanian affairs.
"To keep pace with that rocketing interest, we took the region as one of our priorities in overseas expansion, and we've received positive feedback in student numbers."
According to the Hanban, which manages the institute, there are currently more than 21,000 students studying Chinese and cultural subjects like martial arts, traditional Chinese medicine and Chinese opera in 29 facilities cooperated with local universities and secondary schools in 13 countries in the region.
The annual increase rate of student numbers reached 14 per cent at the end of 2013, which is much faster than growth in the United States and Europe.
Chinese President Xi Jinping's ongoing visit to Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba is expected to accelerate the establishment of new Confucius Institute facilities, said Zhu.
Seven Confucius Institutes have opened in Brazil since 2008, when the first was launched at Sao Paulo State University, and there are ongoing discussions about building three new facilities in northeastern Brazilian provinces.
The Hanban also established a Latin America headquarters in Chile with three staff members to coordinate teaching resources in the region.
Thiago da Silva, a Brazilian who studied Chinese at the Confucius Institute at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro in 2012, hailed the institute as a bridge between Chinese and Brazilian people.
"We had almost no channel to learn what was like in China before the institute was established. Now, people have ready-made curricula and Chinese teachers to learn about the language and culture directly," said the Rio native, who now works with a Brazilian energy-development company with ties to the Chinese market.
However, the institute's expansion in the region has been challenged by the lack of adequate teachers.
Due to the long distance and less-developed living conditions in some places in the region, graduates of the teaching-Chinese-as-a-foreign-language major in China are less eager for Latin American appointments than those offered elsewhere in the world.
The high requirements of fluency in the local languages as well as Chinese-teaching skills also narrow the talent pool, said Zhu.
Zhou Gaoxin, a Shanghai International Studies University graduate, worked at the Confucius Institute at the University of Havana in Cuba as a volunteer teacher from September 2009 to June 2010.
"The biggest challenge for me at that time was to overcome the poor facilities in the school's dorms while learning Spanish before teaching," said Zhou.
To recruit more qualified teachers, the Hanban has increased the monthly allowance for teachers to $1,000 apart from accommodation and will develop more cooperation with Chinese universities to expand its talent pool.