In this melting pot of a city, different dialects are thrown left and right, and as politics and business get concentrated overseas, Americans are picking up these languages. One way they learn to do it is at one of the dozens of schools specializing in foreign language studies, from the ever-popular Spanish to French to Japanese. Though Arabic too has recently come on strong, nothing appears to tromp the latest language craze: Chinese.
"It’s become a buzz word, kind of like Japan was in the ’80s when America concentrated on it and its growth," said Jon Hills, director of Hills Learning, a language school in Manhattan. "Then, we thought we would be speaking Japanese soon, but now, Chinese has taken its place."
No matter what city you go to, you can expect to find at least some version of a Chinatown, or a small pocket of Chinese immigrants living and working. Based on the CIA’s World Fact Book, the estimated number of people living in China by July 2011 is 1,336,718,015. The number of people in the United States is approximately one billion less than that. So it comes as no surprise that the interest in learning Chinese has steadily been climbing.
"It’s kind of a no-brainer for people following the language markets," said Hills. "Schools in particular are putting investments into Chinese language classes, which also reflect the parents and what they think the next important language is going to be."
Take Xiao Bao Chinese, a school run by Danielle Chang, who also organized the first all-Asian food and culture festival, Luckyrice. The school, in partnership with the Museum of Chinese in America, teaches children ages 5 and under about Chinese language and culture. Chang, who is Chinese, started the school five years ago in response to her own young daughter who declared she wasn’t Chinese, she was American.
"That really upset me, so I basically started this program for young children as a response," said Chang. "It snowballed, and one class turned into seven. I think parents really want to expose their kids to Chinese from an early age."
Many of the kids that go to Xiao Bao aren’t Chinese, nor have a strong affiliation to the country. Chang said it wasn’t just about learning her language; she thinks most smart, cultured and sophisticated people see being bilingual as a tool, both in the utilitarian sense and as a way to expand the mind. Before Mandarin Chinese became popular, there was French and Japanese, but in the long run, not many people use these languages compared to the number of Chinese and Spanish speakers.
Given that, Spanish is still one of the top languages being studied at ABC Language Exchange. It’s their most popular choice and they offer 23 classes, compared to the 16 courses in Chinese. But in a unique turn, the program’s director Elizabeth Lunney has seen interest in Russian rise over the last year.
"I was really surprised," she said.
"Since the Cold War ended it went into a decline, and Chinese became the language people wanted to learn, but I guess the Russian economy is attracting people."
Still, they only offer 10 Russian classes, which are more than any other place with extensive Russian language studies, but significantly less then their top three. Lunney said the number two seller is French, and Chinese falls in third.
In the end, Lunney and other professional language teachers agree that the popularity of a language falls to current affairs, the economy and business deals. Due to the war in Iraq, curiosity in Arabic spiked, and in lieu of the recent tragedy in Japan, it will be interesting to see if Japanese language studies rise because of it. The number of people speaking the language matters too, though oddly enough, Hindu has never been a choice language to learn, despite India being the second most populated country in the world.
But as far as the decision to learn Chinese goes, Alexia Brue enrolled her son in Xiao Bao for a common reason many people choose to learn a foreign language—family. While hers isn’t Asian, her brother married a Chinese woman and their kids speak Mandarin as a first language.
"We thought it’d be nice for him to grow up speaking it too, since as soon as he’s old enough, he’ll travel to China with them," said Brue. "And then, there’s the added bonus of it being a super-important language to learn."