"In my English language class 90 per cent students were women. I believe that women are naturally inclined towards languages," says Amy Wang, 28, a diplomat from Kobe near Beijing. More people - mostly women - have shown that they are game to learn a universal language, ever since China was announced as the host of the XXIX Olympic Games.
In fact, as per a report of the Chinese Ministry of Education (MOE), the number of people taking its English proficiency test, Test for English Majors (TEM), has risen by 10 per cent annually since 2004 when China bagged the 2008 Olympics. Over 900 colleges offer English major and currently, 800,000 students are majoring in English alone.
"I majored in English from Yunnan University. Most of us who studied English ended up as civil servants or diplomats. But with the Olympics, thousands of job opportunities as translators, interpreters, volunteers have opened up. Women have always played a pivotal role in entrepreneurship in China and we are capitalizing on this chance now," says Lee Chindiang, 25, a civil servant working for the Yunnan Administration in south-west China.
With Beijing expecting over 500,000 foreign visitors during the sporting extravaganza, hotels, local businesses, police, hospitals, and bus and train services are all looking towards hiring staff or volunteers who speak foreign languages. For example, the Beijing Emergency Medical Centre has been advertising for multi-lingual people to receive emergency medical calls. The Olympics Volunteer Programme has enrolled over 400,000 English-speaking recruits to combat the influx of foreigners. About 65 per cent of the recruits are women.
"My aunt and sister, who have done courses in English and French respectively, have found jobs as hotel staff in Beijing," reveals Annie Yang, 27, a tour guide from Dali, on way to Beijing herself. Annie, who is fluent in English and French, has completed a crash course in sports translation to prepare herself for work in the capital. Official figures say 10,000 sports translators would be needed during the Olympics. China has about 300,000 professional translators and interpreters, one-fourth of whom are in Beijing. Most of them specialize in English, French, Russian, Korean and Japanese. The Olympics related translation business is expected to touch US$ 92.2 billion (700 billion Yuan).
Most Chinese women prefer to take up English and French as they can easily find jobs as teachers. "Many of my friends have also gone abroad to work as nurses, teachers or au pairs after learning English or French," says Li Xiang, 22, who is fluent in English and Korean. She has joined a tour and travel company in Beijing, as a guide and interpreter during the Olympics.
For the first time in Olympic history a private company - Beijing Yuanpei Century Translation Co. Ltd. - has been contracted for official translation and interpretation services. With linguistic resources from Peking University, a team of 600 professional translators of the company would be working round-the-clock during the games. At least half the team comprises women drawing annual remunerations between RMB 200,000 to RMB 300,000 (US$1=6.8 Yuan) annually.
Age is no bar in language studies as proven by the residents of Beijing's Dongsi Olympic Community. About 100 citizens, over 50 years of age, are attending classes three times a week to brush up on English etiquette and phrases. "The elderly Chinese speak mandarin. It's difficult for them to learn a foreign language. But, the Olympics seem to have rejuvenated one and all. Our courses, too, have several students over the age of 40 now," says Anais Ravet, Responsible Administrative, Alliance Francaise, Beijing. Over 27,000 students are enrolled to learn French in more than 12 cities across China. In fact, French is so popular that Alliance Francaise has its fifth biggest network in the world in China.
Today, 50 million people in China, most of them women, are learning a foreign language at schools and institutes in China, which in turn are offering courses in over 60 foreign languages.
Various universities such as the Beijing Foreign Studies University, Peking University, Yunnan University and Xi'an International Studies University, and institutes like the Nanjing Foreign Language School, Hangzhou Foreign Language School, Shanghai Foreign Language School, Tianjin Foreign Language School, Summit Foreign Language School and Einsun Education Corporation in Kunming, cater to students who want to learn languages such as Arabic, German, Korean, Japanese, Russian, Spanish and Italian.
"I consciously opted for Spanish as I was determined to become a diplomat. With Spanish, I was sure of a foreign posting," says Gao Lina, 25, on holiday in Lijiang, Yunnan, from her posting in Africa. "Two of my classmates Li Liming and Li Xiaoyu, who took French are currently working in other countries in Africa," she discloses, adding with a smile, "A diplomat's job is viewed in China with great prestige. Most girls aspire for it. The salary is good and social standing improves tremendously. Husbands, too, are easy to find, often within the diplomatic circles."
One can wonder what would happen to this huge talent pool once the Olympics are over. However, for the Chinese, it's just a beginning. As Liu Wen, 11, proudly explains in English, "We are learning English at the primary level in schools now. Our teacher tells us to select an English name in school, mine is Lily. She told us foreigners find it difficult to pronounce our Chinese names. We want to talk to foreigners. So we need to learn English. We get many foreign visitors in Dali now and I am happy to talk to them in English."
China is gradually opening up to the outside world. The economy is growing and tourism is being avidly promoted. So, the number of foreign visitors is increasing. Some 70,000 foreigners already live and work in Beijing.
Many women are working with corporations and business houses in Beijing and Shanghai as secretaries-cum-interpreters. According to Paul Lemetti, President Lemetti, Inc., currently, setting up a pharmaceutical complex in Kunming, "My life became easier when I hired an English speaking secretary who acts as interpreter when I talk to the scientists from Yunnan University. Women assistants also explain local customs and culture with great care and it goes a long way in improving our etiquette during business dealings."
There are several wholesale markets for women's apparel, jewellery and electronic goods in business zones like Guangzhou, where women find employment on the strength of knowing one or more foreign language. "We get customers from Korea and Japan regularly. I speak Korean and a smattering of Japanese and my boss finds me indispensable while dealing with customers," says Wendy Chang Wen, 34, working as a business assistant with a jewellery house.
The next influx of foreign visitors is expected in 2010 for the Shanghai World Expo (where china will showcase its industrial and technological progress). Afterwards, many foreign language experts hope to extend their services to organizers of the London Olympics to be held in 2012! Women are very much in the forefront in China in this growing sector. From teaching American children Mandarin in the Silicon Valley, Chicago or New Jersey to explaining the intricacies of drinking tea in Italian to visitors from Rome in Lijiang, Yunnan, Chinese women are willing to do everything to make themselves global citizens - making their country more cosmopolitan in the process.