CBNNews.com - English is the most spoken language worldwide, but it might not be for long.
Millions are calling Mandarin Chinese the language of the future.
One group of pre-kindergarten students in Washington, D.C. take the same classes as thousands of other students nationwide.
The big difference? When the boys and girls at the at the Yu Ying Public Charter School finish eighth grade, they will be fluent in Mandarin Chinese as well as English.
"One day they're learning everything through English," Sarah Harris, the school's principal said. "One day they're learning everything in Chinese, so it's a very compelling model for a lot of parents."
Harris said there are many advantages to learning Chinese at an early age.
"Children really do soak up languages when they're young," she explained. "They don't have a lot of preconceived ideas about language, so they really come to it in an open way. We've seen children just soaking up the language and applying it in more and more contexts."
According to school founder Mary Shaffner, it's not just the students who want to learn Chinese.
"We are going to start Chinese classes for our parents, which many, many parents have been chomping at the bit for," she said.
With China's expanding global influence, millions are eager to learn the language. In 2004, only about five thousand U.S. students between kindergarten and twelfth grade took Chinese. Last year that number had grown to nearly 50,000.
It's not just happening in the nation's capital. By 2010, it's estimated more than 100 million people worldwide will be studying Chinese as a second language.
Many are learning at one of the more than 200 Confucius Institutes established by the Chinese government. The Insitutes are now in 66 countries advancing the goal of spreading the Chinese language and culture.
In Manila at the Ateneo de Manila University, Director Dr. Ellen Palanca said she believes the popularity of these institutes is a sign of China's development.
"Once a country becomes more developed then it tries to promote its culture and language through such an arm," Palanca explained.
More than 2,000 students have gone through the program since it started two years ago.
Former student Pia Lim Castillo uses Chinese in her job as a food and travel writer. She said the learning experience helped her connect with her Chinese heritage.
"It's my identity. I have to find my identity, not only as a person, but the culture I belong to," he said.
Many believe the ability to speak Chinese will advance their careers.
"I see value in being able to converse in Mandarin with Chinese clients," Attorney Kenneth Chua said. "Since more and more Chinese have been coming to the Philippines, I see more of a market for a lawyer who can speak Chinese."
Paula Leal, a reporter for Spanish News Agency in Manila attributes the growth of Chinese language learning to China's growing economic opportunities and global significance.
"It is the country of the future," she said. "Because of that it is so important to learn Chinese, because a lot of people are talking' Chinese right now."
Thirteen-year-old Pearl Parel started learning the language when she was just eight years old while on a business trip with her father in Taiwan.
"He didn't have an interpreter so he asked me if I could study so I could be his interpreter," she said.
She and many of her classmates at the Quezon City Christian Academy in Manila say that knowing Chinese will be essential after they graduate.
"Learning Chinese will help me in my future career, because my father wants me to be an interpreter and I want to learn more about Chinese culture," Parel said.
Fifteen-year old Ardenne Chuat agrees.
"Learning Chinese right now would be a good opportunity for applying for jobs here in the Philippines," Chuat explained.:China is now expanding and people would want to have employees who know how to speak the main language of China.
Half way around the world in Panama, one legislator even proposed mandating Mandarin Chinese in public schools. But Fermin Tomas Chan, head of theSun Yat-Sen School where all students study Chinese, doesn't think the legislation will pass.
"It's so hard to get teachers to teach Chinese outside of China," Chan said. "If you want to make it nationwide, it's going to be almost impossible to teach. We have problems with English in Panama. What about Chinese?"
Despite the difficulty finding qualified teachers, the school has a long wait list because so many Panamanians want to learn Chinese.
Chan and many of his colleagues say that "in 10 years, Mandarin will be as important worldwide as English."
Others doubt that Chinese speakers will outnumber English speakers any time soon.
Dr. Palanca said she believes Chinese could possibly replace English "in the far future, maybe 50 years from now."
But she admitted that it's more likely that Chinese "will most likely not replace English, but there's a possibility that it can be on par with the English language as an international language."
Whether or not Chinese does become the main international language, people worldwide are excited to learn.
Originally Published November 6, 2008