Indians seeing importance of learning Chinese

Photo: Shutterstock

At Springdales School in Pusa Road, Delhi, principal Ameeta M. Wattal plans to talk to parents about introducing a Chinese language course in Class 6 or Primary 6 in April.

Ms Wattal, who lived in China for five years and speaks Mandarin, is unsure how many pupils will take the course but is convinced it is the foreign language to learn over French and German, the old-time favourites, taught in Indian schools for years.

"Chinese is an important language globally. If business is going to be China-centric, naturally a lot of job opportunities will come up in China," she said. "But you need to motivate children. Chinese is not an easy language... the calligraphy is difficult."

Chinese is being offered by the Central Board of Secondary Education as an optional foreign language at the Class 6 level in a dozen Delhi schools starting this year. The board chalks out syllabus and rules for 15,000 private and government schools across India and abroad, and has brought in 22 teachers from China to teach students and train Indian teachers.

"The teachers will stay in India for one year. They are all primary and middle school teachers," said an official who did not want to be named. The costs will be shared between the federal government and the schools.

The plan is not new. In 2010, then Education Minister Kapil Sibal announced in Beijing that India was introducing Chinese in schools. But it did not happen because there were not enough teachers to teach Chinese, and India had security concerns about allowing Chinese teachers into Indian schools.

While China is India's second largest trading partner, ties have been fraught with tension. The two countries have a long pending border dispute that is a constant source of irritation. And Indian security agencies view Chinese participation in different Indian sectors with suspicion.

Now the government is well aware of the potential of having a young population acquiring Chinese-language skills and tapping into one of the world's fastest-growing markets.

In one sign of how it views the importance of more Indians learning Chinese, clearance was given last year to set up a Confucius Institute, which teaches not just the language but also skills like gongfu. The proposal had been pending for eight years.

The institute was inaugurated last year in Mumbai University in collaboration with Tianjin University of Technology.

Still, allowing Chinese teachers to teach in Indian schools is not expected to lead to a flood of Chinese-language teachers as security concerns still remain.

In the meantime, demand for learning Chinese is rising.

At Jawaharlal Nehru University, thousands of students apply for 35 spots every year. "Demand is always there but the problem is we don't have an infrastructure in place (across the country). This language is increasingly becoming important, not just (because of) geopolitics, but also due to trade and the economy," said the university's Chinese and China studies professor B.R. Deepak.

Mrs Purnima Garg, who runs the Chinese Language Institute, said: "Chinese is the language of the 21st century because of the economic growth of China."

But many wonder if Indian school students can handle the extra burden of learning a language known to be difficult.

India's education system is already seen to be overburdening students who spend hours studying in school and then taking tuition to get ahead in a highly competitive race for limited places in top colleges.

Students are often spotted carrying school bags bulging with books, learning a minimum of three languages ranging from English and Hindi, the national language, to Sanskrit or regional languages. Many also take an additional foreign language like German or French.

But at least one parent thinks Chinese can and should be taught. Mrs Anjali Virk has struggled to get Chinese tutors for 10-year-old Abhay and eight- year-old Adi. She approached her sons' school when she heard of the government's plan to introduce it. "The school said they needed a pool of teachers and that was the problem," said Mrs Virk, who managed to get a tutor this year.

"You just need to be a bit farsighted... knowing Chinese will increase employment opportunities. My kids resist it but the elder one is getting the idea that it's a language no one else knows. Of course it's a challenge because I am not able to help them with homework.''

At the Chinese Language Institute in Gurgaon, students recite common Chinese phrases. It is a three-month crash course taught by a native speaker.

Political science student Kalyanee Parajpe, 18, is learning the basics but wants to go further. "I want to know more about China's political system and I think it will be better to read the Chinese version instead of the English translation."

But she does not know where she will go after the course. "I am thinking about going online and learning. Let's see."

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.