Aggregate data are not available, but figures from local language centres across the continent suggest that the number of people in Europe enlisted in taking the official Chinese Proficiency Test - or HSK - over the last two years has grown by close to a factor five.
“I think the economic reason plays a very important role,” says Lili Lei of the Confucius Institute in Munich, where the number of students rose by more than 100 percent in 2011 and is expected to grow even further this year. “Many people learn Chinese because they must or want to work in China. Many even think [it] can bring them a better future.”
Lu Zhu of the Confucius Institute in Dublin, where attendance this year rose from an average of less than 50 students per year to almost 100 so far, says that “apparently, the job opportunity is the main reason [for the increase].”
In Athens, where Europe’s woes are most acute, the number of test-takers went from 100 in 2010, to 400 in 2011, to 300 so far this year. Asked whether the increase could have anything to do with Greece’s dire state of affairs, Xiuqin Yang, co-director of the city’s Confucius Institute, responded with a simple “yes.”
Capitalising on strong economic performance and an increasingly prominent place in the world, China over the last couple of years has invested in building a physical presence across the globe.
Not unlike the UK’s British Council, France’s Alliance Française or Germany’s Goethe Institut, China now has the Confucius Institute, a centre for the promotion of Chinese culture and language. In Europe today, there are some 230 of such institutes.
And while the actual knowledge of Chinese - or Mandarin, the official language of China - in Europe remains relatively low (in 2007, according to the EU’s latest figures, it was around 0.2 percent), the current crisis, China’s gradual rise towards superpowerdom, and its promotional efforts are proving an effective cocktail of incentives.
Underlying that assumption is an EU survey published in June this year of “Europeans and their languages”, showing an increased interest in Chinese in every single member state.
On average, 6 percent of Europeans think of Chinese as the most useful foreign language (up from 2 percent in 2005), and 14 percent think it is an important language for their children to learn (also up from 2 percent). Inversely, there is a drop in the share of people who feel that way about either French or German.
EUobserver spoke to ten official Chinese language centres - in Athens, Dublin, Edinburgh, Ghent, Cracow, Lancashire, London, Munich, and two in Rome - and all reported a structural increase in the number of people enlisted in taking the Chinese Proficiency Test.