UP FRONT | LATIN AMERICA – COpyright The Miami Herald
Latin Americans are flocking to Chinese language classes to take advantage of growing economic ties between Beijing and the region.
The 14 Peruvians learning to speak Chinese are used to spelling Spanish words exactly as they are pronounced. So they struggled in class recently as they studied a character and tried to pronounce pi-jiu — beer.
”Our teacher tells us we have to think like we’re in the Cave Era, reading hieroglyphics,” said Margarita Ramírez, a student at San Marcos University. “There are so many characters. The pronunciation is so different, especially zh, which is a nightmare.”
Once considered too difficult and virtually useless by many Latin Americans, Chinese is quickly becoming the second language of choice for a growing number of people in the region as Beijing’s economic boom has dramatically increased trade and investments with the mostly Spanish-speaking continent.
Three to five times more Latin Americans are studying Chinese today compared to five years ago, according to an unscientific survey conducted by The Herald in six countries.
”It’s the language of the future for commercial and industrial transactions and for foreign trade,” said Zelma Wong, the administrator who decided to begin offering Chinese at San Marcos. “In 10 years, China will be a world power. That will mean economic development for Peru.”
Not a day passes in Latin America, it seems, without news of a major Chinese investment in the region, a visit by a high-ranking Chinese government or trade official or a trip by a Latin American official to China.
Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo just returned from China. Other Latin American presidents who preceded Toledo include Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe, Argentina’s Néstor Kirchner and Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. And last year, Chinese President Hu Jintao made a 12-day visit to Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Cuba and signed agreements that might lead to investments of at least $30 billion.
”China might be the strongest force driving business in Latin America,” said Ricardo Amorim, who heads Latin America research for the German bank, WestLB. “China is the strongest buyer of minerals and agricultural commodities . . . [and] that trend is likely to increase for the next couple of decades.”
Savvy Latin Americans who earlier might have studied English or French are now studying Chinese — to be well positioned to profit from the growing economic ties with Beijing and perhaps even Chinese tourism.
”People who know Chinese will have more business opportunities,” said Aldo Lezama, a 23-year-old economics student now studying the language at San Marcos. “You’ll have an advantage over the person who doesn’t speak the language.”
Since the Buenos Aires Central University for Languages in Argentina began offering Chinese last summer, 800 students have registered, said program coordinator María Chao. “Now we’re waiting for even more.”
Monica Cohen, who works for a private language school in Buenos Aires called IdiomasyCursos.com, said interest in her Chinese classes also has skyrocketed recently. At times, she said, the school was receiving more inquiries about Chinese lessons than English — usually the most popular language to study. The school now has about a dozen Chinese language students, compared to none less than a year ago.
At the Chilean-Chinese Cultural Institute in Santiago, director Sergio Patricio said that there are now 180 students enrolled in language classes compared to 23 two years ago.
”We see mostly two types of students,” Patricio said in a telephone interview, “businessmen who do business with Chinese companies and university students, who see it as a plus in the job market to be able to speak Chinese.”
In the Bolivian capital of La Paz, Heriberto Quispe, who learned Chinese as an exchange student in 1993 in the city of Hangzhou, said he began teaching the language early this year and now has to turn away potential students.
Eva Wong, a Chinese teacher who immigrated from Hong Kong to Lima with her parents 15 years ago, said she has gone from two students five years ago to more than 100 today.
”I don’t have any more time to teach,” she said.
She kept her humor as her students at San Marcos struggled with the language as well as the culture. At one point, Wong explained that the word mijou described an alcoholic drink.
”Sake!” one student shouted out. ”That’s Japanese,” Wong shot back. “I’m Chinese.”
Two universities in Bogotá began offering Chinese lessons this year. And in Lima, the University of Callao also began offering Chinese this year after administrators realized that the university was buying more and more machines from China for its engineering departments.
”We started with one class, added another and are likely to add a third,” said Humberto Tordoya, a University of Callao administrator.
Herald special correspondent Mei-Ling Hopgood contributed to this report from Buenos Aire