Mario Ballestero dressed in a wrinkleless plaid button-down shirt. His face was clean-shaven and he had a short, clean haircut. As he spoke, Ballestero presented himself as the businessman he hoped to become.
That’s why Ballestero comes here, to Universal de Idiomas, a language institute in downtown San José. The 30-year-old Costa Rican, who has a degree in accounting, is in his second year of studying Mandarin Chinese.
He talks to Chinese and Taiwanese clients at the tennis club where he works. But he envisions doing more with the language in his future thanks to Costa Rica’s new relationship with China. His classmates agree. Learn Mandarin and the business opportunities will come.
“China has had much progress in a very short time,” Ballestero said. “It’s the world’s second superpower. It’s going to continue to grow, and with every day that passes, Mandarin moves toward becoming an alternative to English.”
After Costa Rica established a diplomatic relationship with China in 2007, China’s embassy began pushing the country’s primary language. Mandarin has approximately 870 million native speakers, and China has fast growing economy. The United States still dominates trade with Costa Rica, but the recent Free Trade Agreement with China further justifies Ticos signing up for Mandarin classes.
Meanwhile language schools see an opportunity in ambitious students like Ballestero. Dozens of sites providing Mandarin lessons operate in the Central Valley.
“Once China became a friend of Costa Rica and then this new market was available, of course we offered this to study,” said Olger Ureña, academic supervisor at Universal and ILISA language institutes. “We had English and Portuguese and people started asking for Mandarin.”
In 2007, when the partnership between China and Costa Rica began, Universal began offering Mandarin classes. Today, the school offers 15 classes a week, each with about 7 to 15 students. The Chinese language has surpassed Italian, German and French to become the second most popular language at the school along with Portuguese. English remains number one.
Huang Yu-Ting, who has taught at the Chinese language institute Dongfeng – Viento de Oriente in Heredia, north of San José, since 2008, said more classes needed to be added shortly after she began teaching.
The Taiwanese native also knew Mandarin teachers at the University of Costa Rica (UCR), who said before China sought ties with Costa Rica, Mandarin as not even the most popular Asian language at the university. Japanese classes always had more students. Soon after 2007, Mandarin surpassed Japanese.
Ureña said the majority of Mandarin students at Universal are studying because they want to work with Chinese businesses. Most of the students appear in their 20s and early 30s. However, not everyone in Universal’s classrooms is studying to improve their business savvy. Some have a fascination with the culture.
“My mom is Taiwanese,” Rocío Barrantes, 19, said. “I came to the school to improve my Chinese. My mom only speaks to me in Spanish, and she was forgetting Mandarin. So in order to speak with her I started to learn Mandarin.”
Barrantes attends a church in the downtown neighborhood of Zapote called the Chinese Baptist Church of San José, where she uses her Mandarin proficiency to communicate with foreign churchgoers. She’s even fluent enough to translate her teacher’s Chinese for other students. The teenager maintains a job at a bank, and Barrantes knows Mandarin also could benefit her career.
Language schools here offer programs that promise fluency after five to six years of weekly classes. To speed up the process, some schools give out scholarships for studying Mandarin in China, where intensive courses help students learn the language in less than a year. Ballestero is applying for one of those scholarships. He had a friend who traveled to China for eight months and came back fluent.
The language carries a high learning curve. The grammar is simple, just about everything else is not. Mandarin is a tonal language. One word can have several different meanings depending on how it’s pronounced. Writing in Mandarin is even more challenging, since the language lacks an alphabet. Instead, students must memorize thousands of Chinese characters.
That challenge hasn’t prevented more institutions from opening.
Still, nobody can say for sure if there are jobs available that require Mandarin in Costa Rica. Some institute directors said they’ve heard of interest at call centers, but those corporations still prefer English speakers. Carla Donadio, director of the Chinese Cultural Center, said Chinese tourist groups have called her asking for students to give tours in Mandarin. She remains insistent that fluency in Mandarin will lead to work.
“It’s very important to learn Mandarin because it opens many doors,” Donadio said. “Those people have the possibility to obtain better jobs that pay more.”
Her program is one of two large projects sponsored by the Chinese Embassy. In the fall of 2009, the UCR inaugurated the Confucius Institute. A Chinese Cultural Center opened last year in downtown San José, offering Mandarin classes among other activities intended to promote China. Both programs work with the Chinese government’s Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language (Hanban).
All Mandarin professors at both the UCR and the cultural center arrive from China after training at Hanban. They teach for a year or two in Costa Rica before returning to the communist country. More than 300 Confucius Institutes exist worldwide. (Ed. Note: Due to a pending lawsuit with another Mandarin school in Costa Rica, the UCR changed the name of its Mandarin program to Programa de Difusión de la Cultura China at the University of Costa Rica. However, the program still operates in conjunction with the Confucius Institute in Beijing, China.) The UCR hosts the only one in Central America, as Costa Rica remains the lone Central American country to switch its diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China.
For finding professors outside of Hanban, places like the Liu-Yi Center can help. The company trains Mandarin teachers from Taiwan and China and sends them to schools like Universal and the Panamerican Language Center. On occasion, the Liu-Yi Center finds teachers for students just beginning their education.
Scrawny, bespectacled and outfitted in a white lab coat, Andrés Chu looks more like a scientist than a elementary school teacher. Chu emigrated from Taiwan seven years ago, and teaches Mandarin to more than 200 children from third to seventh grade. These mandatory classes at SEK began in 2008.
“Mandarin is a totally different language than English or French, and in the beginning they have a lot of curiosity,” Chu said. “It’s easy to say ‘ni hao, ni hao’ [hello] and little by little through curiosity they begin learning.”
“I always explain that the language, due to China’s influence, is important for the future, but also from within the language there is a lot of culture because this language is more than 3000 years old.”
Ballestero will attest that it’s never too late to learn the ancient language. And he, like Chu, believe that learning the language will give you a head start on lucrative opportunities coming in the future.
Economists predict that China could eclipse the U.S. as the world’s largest economy within a decade. To the Mandarin student, it feels like common sense to try to pick up the language of an economic superpower.
“The Chinese are the Asian giants, and they want to dominate business in the region,” Ballestero said. “Everybody wants to do business with them because they can bring many benefits to the country.”
Here’s a list of the Chinese language institutes and schools mentioned in the story. Many other programs in the Central Valley also offer Mandarin classes. Prices vary, contact the institution for details.
-Centro Cultural y Educativo Costarricense Chino
Tel: 2223-8585, 2221-5945
–Centro Panamericano de Idiomas (Heredia, Flamingo y Monteverde):
Tel: 2265-6306, Ext. 101
–DONGFENG – Viento de Oriente
Tel: 2238-1615, 2238-1067
–Programa de Difusión de la Cultura China at the University of Costa Rica
– Universal de Idiomas (San José)
Tel: 2257-0441, 2223-9662