Fri, 11 Mar 2005

Slowly but surely, Mandarin becomes second foreign language

Evi Mariani The Jakarta Post/Jakarta

After four years of freedom for the expression of Chinese culture, the Mandarin language has started attracting Indonesians, as private schools begin to provide Mandarin courses in response to popular demand.

"The interest in Mandarin is growing in Indonesia. Not very fast, but steadily," said Michelle Vivi, the owner of Hua Mandarin Language School.

However, she added, although growing slowly, Mandarin had become the second-most favored foreign language after English.

"I believe the growth will accelerate after 2008, when the Olympic Games are held in China. All eyes will be fixed on that country and they will realize its growing role," she said.

Michelle, who established her Mandarin school in West Jakarta in 2001, has witnessed a healthy growth in her own school. Starting from 11 students in 2001, the school now has about 100 students and five teachers from mainland China.

"Most of my students are Chinese-Indonesian schoolchildren. Their parents put them in the course because they think Mandarin will be useful for their children's future," she added.

However, her school has also received some requests from private companies to provide in-house training for employees.

"For companies, we have a business conversation program," Michelle said.

For the regular program, one term at her school costs at least Rp 500,000 for 16 one-hour sessions.

"My course, perhaps, costs more than those at many other schools. But we provide teachers who are really Mandarin teachers from China, not just Chinese people who can speak Mandarin but cannot teach it," Michelle added.

Michelle's teachers are also hired to teach Mandarin at the upmarket private school Tunas Muda, West Jakarta.

"Due to parents' growing demand, we provide Mandarin classes. They say that Mandarin has become popular everywhere so they want their children to learn early," Elly Kusumastuti, a marketing officer at Tunas Muda, said.

The use of Mandarin characters was banned from publication and books by the New Order government.

This regulation, along with others that banned any public expression of Chinese culture, distanced Chinese culture from the younger generation of Chinese-Indonesians.

This ban was in effect for more than 30 years until, in 2000, then president Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid lifted the ban on public celebrations of the Chinese New Year.

Gus Dur's action paved the way for subsequent administrations to lift other bans on Chinese culture.

Shortly afterward, Mandarin courses began flourishing in big cities and the mass media began catering to audiences who wished to know Mandarin.

A broadcast of popular Taiwanese serial Meteor Garden has also helped to spread the popularity of Mandarin.

Catherine Keng, a producer for the Mandarin news program at TV station Metro TV, said the ratings for her program had been encouraging since the start in 2001.

"The rise is positive, although not dramatic," she said.

Keng added that the program, which was designed for Chinese- Indonesian audiences, also attracted non-Chinese.

"We have received requests to provide subtitles on our programs," she said. "Responding to audience feedback, we recently launched a new program to introduce daily conversation Mandarin."

The program displays a short scene with actors conversing in simple Mandarin, like "ni hao" for "how are you?".

"China's economy is getting stronger so Mandarin will be a valuable asset for your career," she added.