By Frankie Chee
You might have seen the Speak Mandarin Campaign video on TV recently, featuring cute kids of different nationalities telling stories in almost-perfect Mandarin.
More than just a plug for the campaign, the one-minute clip that has been telecast since March 17 also reflects a trend making its voice heard here.
More foreigners, from Vietnamese and Koreans to Germans and Swiss, are learning Mandarin.
Five language schools that LifeStyle spoke to report an increase of between 10 and 600 per cent in the number of foreigners signing up to learn the language, compared to five years ago.
Students include Mr Michael Nguyen from France, who came here for a holiday but ended up learning Mandarin at Ikoma Language School from August last year.
'It makes sense to learn Chinese here,' says the 29-year-old Paris Sorbonne University philosophy PhD student who is on his break to write his thesis.
He adds: 'It's useful. China is where all the business is and, even in France, the business schools are teaching Chinese.'
Ikoma's spokesman says that half of those attending its Mandarin courses for those aged 13 and above are Westerners. The school, in Orchard Road's Shaw House, conducts 10 to 15 classes weekly, with four to 15 students in each class.
Well-established language school Inlingua - with branches in more than 40 countries - has seen a dramatic increase in numbers.
Principal Dick Sage says attendance for its Mandarin courses here has risen by 600 per cent from five years back.
'The increase is not just happening here, it's worldwide. The world has gone crazy over Mandarin. It is now the new world language,' says Mr Sage, who was proud to show off his own Mandarin proficiency during the telephone interview.
He adds that more than 80 per cent of the students in the classes - which average six students each - are non-Chinese. The classes, held at both its Clementi and Orchard Road schools, range from two to 10 lessons per week, and cost between $295 and $1,008, depending on the number of lessons per week and total duration of the classes.
A considerable majority are Westerners from countries including Russia, Mexico and Switzerland. Mr Sage cites economic benefits as one of the main reasons for the increase, saying: 'It would be hard to make it in Singapore if you can't speak Mandarin.
'That's a huge international motivation for expats to learn the language.'
Besides economic advantages, he also notes that there are lifestyle and social needs to communicate and socialise, especially with locals of the opposite sex.
American attorney David Terner, 49, started lessons at the language school of the Singapore Chinese Chamber Institute of Business three weeks ago because his Malaysian-born Chinese wife, Lee Ching Ching, 32, refused to teach him Mandarin.
'She wouldn't teach me and told me to go learn it, so I signed up,' the American says light-heartedly. The permanent resident has been living here for two years.
Since five years ago, the institute has experienced a 50 per cent jump in the number of foreigners at its Mandarin classes. The centre in Hill Street conducts between six and eight classes six evenings a week, with 15 to 20 students in each class. It costs $650 for 10 lessons, twice a week.
The institute's senior sales and marketing manager, Mr Chew Kheng Fui, says: 'It's a practical need. There are many Singaporean Chinese in the expats' offices, so this can help them assimilate, to order food or to communicate with their colleagues and friends.'
Even expat schools, such as EtonHouse International Education Group, have seen a greater interest in Mandarin.
The education group, which operates nine schools here, reports an increase in children opting for Mandarin as a second language in all its pre-schools.
Most students - both locals and foreigners - tend to choose Mandarin although it offers other languages such as Hindi, Malay and Japanese in some schools, says Mrs Ng Gim Choo, the school's managing director.
As for coping with the sometimes tongue-twisting language, it is a breeze for Mr Terner, who can speak three or four other languages including Hebrew and French.
But Swiss Simone Fabiola Potocki, 35, says: 'The tones feel like a singing lesson in school - it's a challenge trying to find the right tone.'
The German language teacher has been learning Mandarin for three weeks.
And Frenchman Nguyen thinks the characters are hard to grasp.
He jokes: 'In France, when something is difficult for us, or we do not understand it, we say it's Chinese to us.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.