In Asia, English is useful but Mandarin is rising
Inside a brightly painted classroom, a circle of kindergarten kids sits facing their teaching assistant, a Filipina. "So what kind of present do you want from Santa?" she asks in English. "Do you want a toy? Who likes Barbie?" Some of the girls stick up their hands.
"We also have a Barbie for boys. What's he called?" the teacher continues. Several voices overlap, all speaking in English. "Ken!" "I want boy Barbie!" "I too want, miss!" After the hubbub subsides, the day's lesson begins: The sound made by the letters Q and U.
Next door, another group of preschoolers is playing a game. Their profile is identical - under 5, over 90 percent Thai. But the teacher is Taiwanese, the language being spoken is Mandarin, and the classroom décor is Chinese.
After recess, the children will swap places - and switch languages. When school is over, pupils revert to speaking their mother tongue. The next day, it's back to the immersion classes in English and Chinese.
Welcome to the cutting edge of Thailand's flirtation with Chinese, an ancient language increasingly seen as the new dialect of diplomacy and trade in East Asia. In the last few decades, China's economic rise has rippled across the globe, jolting policymakers and dazzling investors.
In its wake, Mandarin is also making gains.
Just as the US leveraged its superpower status to promote its language and culture, Beijing is busy exporting its tongue. It may lag behind English as a global language, but there's no doubting its rising appeal, especially in Asia.
Thailand hasn't turned its back on English: It's still compulsory in public schools, and likely to remain so. But starting from this year, thousands of schools will introduce Chinese as a foreign language, with a target of enrolling 30 percent of all high school students in programs within five years.
"There's been a lot of interest among parents as well as students to learn the Chinese language," says Khunying Kasama Varavarn, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Education. "We hope to establish at least one secondary school offering Chinese in every province."
Thailand is counting on support from Beijing, which has promised to train more Thai language teachers, send native speakers to work in Thai schools, and provide free teaching materials.
China is already supporting language training in dozens of countries and reportedly has set a target of raising the number of foreigners studying Mandarin around the world to 100 million by 2010. Currently, more than 30 million people worldwide are studying Mandarin, according to the Chinese news service Xinhua.
Since 2004, China's Education Ministry has opened language centers called Confucius Institutes in over 20 countries, including South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Sweden, and Kenya.
In 2004, 110,844 foreigners from 178 countries were studying Mandarin in China, says Xinhua, up 43 percent on 2003. In Southeast Asia, private language schools in Malaysia and Indonesia report rising enrollment in Chinese classes, according to Knight Ridder.
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.
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."