UAE: More expats, Emiratis learning Chinese language; here's why

Mandarin is considered one of the hardest languages in the world, but with consistency and dedication, students will eventually learn it

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Reuters file photo used for illustrative purposes
Reuters file photo used for illustrative purposes

Lamya Tawfik

Published: Tue 10 Jan 2023, 7:03 PM

Teachers and experts in the UAE are seeing a spike in the number of residents who are taking Chinese language lessons. While several reasons could be behind the trend, they said business is at the top of the list.

Nine-year-old Gabriel Checinski has been learning Chinese since he was 6, and as his mother Michelle encourages him to keep going, she has been picking up the lessons, too.

“I lived in Asia for nearly 10 years and I believe that it’s important for people from Western countries to learn Asian languages to foster better cultural understanding,” said Michelle, a British homemaker married to a German.

During the pandemic when classes were online, she would listen in and help Gabriel review. “I try my best to speak with him. It’s not as good as a native speaker but anything helps,” she said. Now that China has opened its borders, she said she’d like him to do some kind of language exchange.

It hasn’t always been easy, and Gabriel sometimes does complain about the writing part, but she said he never once said he wanted to stop. “It’s hard to remember the strokes but he also gets some satisfaction when he gets to practise in actual scenarios, like when he spoke to a Chinese family at the flea market,” said Michelle.

Marwa Abbas, an Emirati electrical engineer, had just finished the first-level classes and now she plans to start the next stage.

“Learning Chinese will help build some bridges (for us) as a company because we might have dealings with some Chinese vendors in the future. Personally, I want to start a new business and China is well known for having a rich industry sector,” she said.

The language isn’t easy, but Marwa said she was prepared for it. “Learning anything will take time and it also needs dedication from a personal level. I’m an engineer so it’s a tough job, and I’m always busy, but I do try to allocate one hour twice or thrice a week."

Fourteen-year-old Tatiana Dwyer decided to enrol in Mandarin classes after her family moved to Dubai from Hong Kong.

“She used to speak Cantonese which is very different in terms of tones, and so she decided to learn Mandarin here,” said her mother Sheryl Rosagazo, who is from the Philippines and married to an Australian.

A young polyglot, Tatiana is also learning Arabic, Spanish, and French at school, and her mother says languages are her biggest assets. “Internationally, Chinese is one of the languages that most people speak. We are in an evolving world and speaking the language gives her a lot of potential for her future,” said Sheryl, adding that her daughter wants to be a lawyer and work in criminal justice to help people.

'Chinese requires dedication, consistency'

Learning Chinese — according to Summer Yin, owner of Great Wall Institute — is good for the brain.

“Chinese is different from western Latin languages. The characters are photographic and don’t rely on alphabets and so by speaking it, kids practise different parts of the brain. Totally different from their language. When you learn Chinese and speak English, you use different parts of the brain, so you’re smarter,” she said.

Summer said she taught Chinese in Beijing before coming to the UAE. She has also been teaching Chinese in Dubai for nearly nine years, six of them in the institute she founded.

“When my institute was founded, 80 per cent of the student population were overseas Chinese students. Today, there are more and more people learning Chinese — foreigners who are non-natives, too, and I’m seeing more Emiratis,” she said, adding that they are mostly working in the government, and usually have meetings with Chinese companies, suppliers, or customers.


Summer said the strong bilateral ties between China and the UAE — and the fact that there are public schools in the country teaching Chinese — translate to higher interest in the language.

Addressing the common opinion that Chinese is difficult, Summer said: “It is not difficult but just different. The first glimpse looks too different than your own language but once you start, you can learn it,” she said.

The main challenge facing language learners, she said, is persistence and finding the time to learn and practice.

From 15 students to 200

Reem Hong, owner of Happy Mandarin Chinese Language Training, said she has been teaching Chinese for nearly 10 years in the UAE. She first started with her four children who are Emirati-Chinese, as she was keen on offering quality Mandarin education to her children.

When she opened the institute, Reem said she only had around 15 students, and while she lost 30 percent of her students during the pandemic, today she has nearly 200 students.

One of the major challenges she faces is finding passionate, devoted, and qualified Mandarin teachers.

“We spend time training our teachers and we have developed practical learning systems to cater to non-native students. Innovation is the key to our success,” said Reem. Mandarin, she said, is considered one of the hardest languages in the world and so it requires consistency.

“There are many government officials learning Chinese and there’s also a demand from business professionals," said Joanna Liu, co-founder of China Tang, Chinese teacher and presenter. She said that learning a language is a way to learn the culture.

Joanna Liu and Alfred Liu
Joanna Liu and Alfred Liu

Alfred Liu, co-founder of Think First Learning, said their students mainly fall into a few categories: Schools that are offering Chinese as a second language; students who are in college studying in local universities and are interested in exchange student programs; or adults who work with Chinese or who are part of corporates who work with Chinese companies.

“We’re planning some courses with one of the malls to help them offer better service to Chinese customers. China has now opened its borders and so, many of them will soon be receiving tourists,” said Alfred, adding that over the years, he has seen great demand from Chinese language learners.


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