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Looking Beijing? No English

China’s status as India’s second largest trade partner, and it's growing global importance have prompted a rapidly growing, but still small, number of Indians to study Mandarin, report Emily Meredith and Anna Biernat.

delhi Updated: Aug 22, 2008 23:33 IST

Anita Sharma stood in front of about 20 Delhi University students. “Now please, close your teeth,” she said. “Zed is ‘tze’. Close your teeth!”

As Sharma called out syllables, a few of the students, who began studying the language just a few weeks ago, stumbled over the cai and zai syllables — pronounced “t-s-ai” and “t-z-ai”.

Sharma made the class repeat. “In the beginning if these sounds are not clear you cannot speak Chinese well,” she said. Varying pronunciations of a word change its meaning. So, shi can mean ‘ten’ or ‘thing’. It depends upon whether it is said like a question or command.

China’s status as India’s second largest trade partner, its developing economy and growing global importance have prompted a rapidly growing, but still small, number of Indians to study Mandarin.

Chalo China

Sharma, a Chinese teacher at DU since 25 years, has witnessed applications to the Chinese programme jump to 600 from less than 100 a decade ago. At Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the size of the Mandarin programme has nearly doubled, and more people apply to study Mandarin than any other language.

In Mumbai, the demand for Chinese tutors in India grows every year, said Jenny Zelieng, assistant director of the India-China Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Zelieng’s unit, which conducts Chinese classes since 2004, had about 15 students annually at the beginning. Now, over 30 students enroll every year. Employment prospects for those knowing the language are on the rise, especially among software and travel and tourism business professionals.

Companies like Infosys, Reliance, Tata Infotech — which have deputed employees to their China offices — insist on employees learning Chinese.

“Not only does it create a friendlier atmosphere in trade, it also fills the communication gap,” said Zelieng, adding, “Very few speak English in China.”

Arvin Sabarwal (25), an engineer with Infosys Technology, has been learning Chinese at the India-China Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “I am going to Hong Kong to do an MBA. Although the course will be conducted in English, command over Chinese will definitely help,” he said.

Parinita Dixit, a student of the Indira Gandhi National Open University, thinks her efforts will pay off. “In India there are very few people who are learning Chinese.” Dixit attends DU’s part-time programme. “Companies are looking for translators and interpreters because the language is very much in demand, and they pay well.”

Gained in translation

Many of India’s Mandarin speakers have, in the past, turned to translation. But now many students are being hired by multinational firms in India and in China, said Hemant Adlakha, a Mandarin professor at JNU.

“We do have a lot of students who come here to learn Hindi or Sanskrit, because we think trade and cultural exchange are increasing very rapidly,” said Sun Xinquan, in charge of education at the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi.

Yet, India has very few Mandarin speakers. While DU and JNU plan to meet the rising demand with new degree programmes, they have less than 200 students learning Mandarin.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development offers 25 scholarships annually for study in China. India needs more Mandarin speakers if it wants to improve its relationship with China, said Patricia Uberoi of Delhi’s Institute of Chinese Studies.

“Since people are economically motivated, they are motivated for short-term gains,” Uberoi said.