Pratik Salve, who works with a multinational electronics firm in Pune, was to travel to Singapore in March 2020 for a one-year project but the Covid outbreak led to this being postponed to March 2021. Salve is using the time to take a year-long course in Mandarin so as to be able to converse better with Chinese clients. “Earlier, the plan was to hire translators who would work with me. However, my company is watching costs and I thought this was an opportunity for me to learn Chinese,” he explained.
Bhaskar Satpathy, a private Mandarin tutor in Kolkata, used to teach his students in a classroom environment. However, the lockdown put paid to all that and enrolment dwindled. Satpathy quickly pivoted to teaching the language online. “I started taking classes via video conferencing in May. While students were apprehensive in the first few weeks, enrolment started picking up by June. Now, I have 80 students studying under me,” he added.
Mandarin is the most popular foreign language in India, due to the job opportunities it provides teachers, translators, businessmen, lawyers and finance professionals. There are around 100 institutes teaching the language across the country.
As with other courses, the closure of physical classes due to the Covid-19 lockdown impacted Mandarin learning. Institutes imparting training in the language across India told Moneycontrol that enrolment had taken a hit. Yeh China Education, an institute with a 1,500-1,800 annual batch size, has seen a 30-40 percent decline this year. Inchin Closer, which provides certificate Mandarin courses to around 300 students every year, has seen a nearly 30 percent drop in class strength.
However, demand is now picking up, the institutes said, with newer student profiles being added, including housewives and chartered accountants.
“Large schools have not opened due to the lockdown. This impacted us because we used to hold Mandarin classes in the schools’ classrooms,” said Usha Sahoo, founder and director, Yeh China Education. “But since we have shifted online, we are seeing corporate enrolments rising because they now have to sit in India and manage businesses in South-East Asia, and translators may not be readily available.”
With demand now picking up, these institutes are confident of recouping their numbers over the next six months of FY21. The anti-China sentiment after the India-China clash in Galwan Valley has also had no impact. “Learning a language will always come in handy. Political issues have no bearing on enrolment,” said Sahoo.
Why Mandarin is so popular
Mandarin is spoken not just in mainland China, but also in Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and parts of Malaysia.
Most local businesses and clients converse in the language and for professionals coming from other countries, it is therefore an essential language. Indeed, HR consultants told Moneycontrol that Chinese language speakers are among the highest paid globally, earning Rs 12 lakh per year on an average.
According to the Ethnologue: Languages of the World annual publication, Mandarin is the second-most spoken language in the world with 1.12 billion speakers. English is on top with 1.26 billion speakers and Hindi takes the third spot with 637 million speakers.
Ethnologue also states that Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in the world if only native speakers of a language are counted.
There are other dialects such as Min, Wu, Hakka, Cantonese and Xiang, but Mandarin Chinese is spoken by close to 70 percent of China’s population.
Unlike other languages, Chinese has relatively uncomplicated grammar. The language has no verb conjugation and no gender or number distinctions. But Mandarin is considered tough because it has four tones. This means that a word can be pronounced in four different ways and each pronunciation has a different meaning.
The HSK test
The Chinese Proficiency Test (HSK), an international standardised exam, is used to test and rate Chinese language proficiency. This test assesses non-native Chinese speakers' abilities in using the Chinese language in their daily, academic and professional lives. HSK stands for Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì or Chinese-Level Test.
For official job profiles, including for teachers, lawyers and translators, the HSK test is considered the standard for proficiency in Mandarin Chinese.
The annual fee for one-year programmes with an HSK test ranges between Rs 40,000 per year to Rs 1 lakh, depending on the level of proficiency that a student seeks.
HSK has six levels of proficiency, from Level I (basic) to VI (advanced). Those who are able to pass Level I can understand and use simple Mandarin Chinese words and phrases, meet basic needs for communication and possess the ability to further their Chinese language studies.
By Level VI, individuals can easily comprehend written and spoken information in Mandarin Chinese and can effectively express themselves in Chinese, both orally and on paper. The test is administered by the Hanban, an agency of the Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China.
How are institutes coping with the lockdown
Though the lockdown has led to the closure of in-class learning of Mandarin in special centres or schools and colleges, the learning process has moved online.
Take the Confucius Institute at the University of Mumbai for instance. This institute has opened registration for online courses in Chinese Mandarin. The fee ranges from Rs 12,000 for 48 hours of HSK Level 1 to Rs 24,000 for 180 hours’ training of HSK Level VI. These programmes will be conducted entirely online.
This institute, set up in 2013, is one of the 500 Confucius Institutes in the world. It also facilitates scholarships for further Mandarin Studies in China as an organ of the Hanban.
Sahoo of Yeh China Education told Moneycontrol that even home-makers are learning Mandarin along with their toddlers. In a sense it has become a fun activity between parents and children now that the latter are studying from home. Also, in case of doubts, the mother may be able to guide the child.
Yeh China Education charges Rs 40,000-50,000 per year for the HSK programme, with three levels. Sahoo said that the institute has young children studying the programme for five to six years, while adults do a 12-18-month programme.
Using videos, songs and stories
Higher engagement levels are also required since classes have moved online. This is paving the way for newer interactive tools to be used. Yeh China uses songs and videos to keep the students more engaged.
Similarly, Inchin Closer, which provides certificate Mandarin courses, is launching an application that will help students master the language through stories. “We tend to learn a lot through stories since this method is part of our culture. Hence, we are launching an application that will help our students improve their Mandarin skills via stories. This will be a value addition for students,” said Nazia Vasi, Founder and CEO of Inchin Closer.
Apart from regular students, Vasi said Inchin Closer is also seeing corporates using Mandarin learning as an engagement tool for their employees and as a means for skill development since work-from-home is the new normal. Vasi explained that the institute has taught a wide range of people from Bollywood stars and diamond merchants to lawyers and chartered accountants.
Private tutors also seem to be adapting to the change. These tutors teach the basics of Mandarin and a student seeking HSK certification has to enrol with a Hanban-recognised testing centre.
Satpathy the Mandarin tutor in Kolkata, has a one-year programme for which he charges Rs 28,000. Students have to then contact Hanban testing centres for HSK exams. He said that of 80 new students who have enrolled, 14 are individuals who were laid off from their jobs and thought of learning Mandarin as an additional skill for overseas jobs.
“Unlike languages like French or German which can be learnt on the internet on free sites, Mandarin requires personalised attention by teachers. Hence, teachers are a must,” he added.