In Asia, English is useful but Mandarin is rising
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For now, most Thai students of Chinese attend private classes. At ICI, a language school in Bangkok, principal Liu Xiaoying sees a steady stream of professionals keen to master Mandarin. Many work for import-export companies and want to expand their business with China.Skip to next paragraph
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Ms. Liu, who was born in China and moved to Thailand, says that anyone can learn the language with a bit of effort. But like many in the private education sector, she has her doubts about the government's plans to teach Chinese to the next generation.
"Everyone studies English for five hours a week, and they study for several years, but how many of them can actually communicate in English? How many people can use English to do business?" she asks, raising an eyebrow.
The answer is not many, which is why well-heeled Thais enroll their children at international schools where classes are taught in English by native speakers. It's a formula for bilingual competence, and a route to a university spot in the US or Australia.
But why stop at two languages?
Located on an airy campus abutting a country club, Concordian International School began five years ago as an experiment in foreign language immersion. Today, it's probably the world's only trilingual primary school teaching three languages that use different scripts.
Literacy in Chinese requires learning thousands of different characters. Written Thai has its own alphabet that derives from ancient Indian scripts.
Most Chinese classes teach the written and spoken. The kindergarten at Concordian teaches basic characters to preschoolers, just as the English teachers teach the letters Q and U.
Starting from kindergarten, the 230 students at Concordian spend their days immersed in English and Mandarin, while chattering away in Thai during recess (a handful of non-Thais attend). After Grade 5, most classes are taught in English, with Mandarin as a foreign language and additional instruction in Thai.
"Not everyone is linguistic. Not everyone can learn languages well when they are older," says Varnnee Ross, the school founder. "But languages can be learned naturally when you're a child."
Like most of her students, Ms. Varnnee hails from Thailand's successful ethnic-Chinese minority. Her father, who began by raising chickens, is among the country's wealthiest men and reputably the first to invest in China after Deng Xiaoping opened the door to foreign capital in 1978.
However, few Thai-Chinese students speak Mandarin at home.
Typically, their grandparents are the last link to China, and often like the idea of passing on their culture and language, says Ms. Varnee.
The motivation of the parents, though, is "the logic of the businessman" who sees the value of communicating with Asia's economic powerhouse.
"I think I'm more romantic than them," sighs Ms. Varnnee. "I would like my children to appreciate beautiful poems and beautiful Chinese writing and understand the meaning in paintings because it's another level of culture."