An increasing number of Chinese university students are learning the languages of Southeast Asia, with Thai one of the most popular for young learners of non-mainstream foreign languages in China.
With increasing ties between China and Southeast Asia, the ability to speak Southeast Asian languages improves students’ chances of getting well-paid jobs after graduating. Many of them are hired by Chinese state agencies and companies, as well as in companies from Southeast Asia doing business in China.
Southeast Asia has become increasingly important for China, with increased trade and tourism between the Asian power and the rapidly growing region. Asean is China’s third-largest trading partner after the European Union and the United States, according to China’s Ministry of Commerce. Among the 83 million Chinese who travelled abroad last year, more than 10 per cent came to Asean countries, according to the Asean-China Centre in Beijing.
Yunnan University of Nationalities (YUN) is one Chinese institution of higher education that offers courses in Southeast Asian languages and cultures. It is located in a suburb of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan and the largest city there. The university’s School of Southeast and South Asian Languages and Cultures has 1,265 students from Yunnan and other provinces all over China.
YUN began offering Thai and Burmese courses in 1993 and Vietnamese three years later. The faculty of Southeast and South Asian languages was set up in 1997. Now four more Southeast Asian languages are taught there – Laotian, Cambodian, Malaysian, and Indonesian.
More than 1,200 students graduated from the faculty last year, most of them majoring in Thai, Burmese and Vietnamese. As many as 96 per cent of graduates find employment in China’s media organisations, state enterprises, universities and companies, according a Thai document about the faculty given to visiting journalists from Thailand.
Dean of the school, Professor Lu Sheng, who speaks perfect Thai, attributed the success to the faculty’s “3+1 teaching model”. Every student is required to spend his/her third year of study at a Southeast Asian university cooperating with YUN. The four Thai universities taking part are Chiang Mai, Burapha, Rajabhat Phetchaburi and Rajabhat Uttaradit.
“This model helps students to learn more about the Southeast Asian language they study. They also have a better chance to get good jobs after graduating,” he told a group of visiting journalists from Southeast Asia.
Four young Chinese women majoring in Thai were among the students of Southeast Asian languages who met with the visiting journalists at the university. They are among more than 200 Chinese students studying Thai at the faculty. Their Thai skills were impressive considering that – according to the dean – most of them “started from scratch”.
When chatting with the four Thai majors, it was as if one was speaking with Thai university students. Wearing a uniform similar to those warn in Thai universities, they spoke Thai fluently and were able to “wai” beautifully when the visiting Thai journalists departed.
A fourth-year student majoring in Thai said that last year she had come to study at Rajabhat Phetchaburi University. When asked why she chose to study Thai, she said that she became interested in Thailand and the language when in high school. “The more I learn Thai, the more I like it and love it,” she said in Thai with mild Chinese accent.
Her friends were less diplomatic, saying that a major reason for studying Thai was to increase their chances of getting jobs after graduation. They said that they hoped to be employed with Thai companies that were doing business in China, or Chinese firms with jobs that required Thai language skills.