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When the bell rang and the lesson in Chinese at the Hillel School in Ramat Gan ended, not one of the pupils collected their things and rushed to leave the room, as would be expected. The seven children in the class opted instead to remain and sing a Chinese love song for a visitor. Then the six boys formed a circle around the one girl in the classroom and began to serenade.

This is the second year that the children in the seventh-grade gifted class have been learning to speak Chinese. Unlike most Western languages, Chinese is a tonal language. "The different tones change the significance of the word," explains Amit Nelkin, one of the students. "It's quite confusing and you have to make sure to express the words properly, much more than in other languages."

It seems that the difficulty with the language and its difference from other languages contributes to the attraction for him. Last year Nelkin did not hesitate when he was given the choice of learning French or Chinese (in addition to English and Arabic).

Chinese is special and interesting, he said of his choice, and the information about Chinese culture makes the lessons fascinating. About half the children in his class chose Chinese and they are continuing this year with two hours a week of the language.

They are not alone. Studying Chinese as an enrichment program, or as an alternative to another foreign language, appears to be the next craze in education. In addition to the Hillel school, the Nitzanim elementary school in Tel Aviv, for example, and the Blich and Ohel-Shem high schools in Ramat Gan, as well as the Hebrew University High School in Jerusalem and others now offer Chinese lessons.

The funding for the lessons in Tel Aviv schools comes from the Confucius Institute at Tel Aviv University, and the Ramat Gan municipality for the schools in that city. In Jerusalem it is the parents who pay for the classes.

The Confucius Institute serves to enhance the teaching of the Chinese language and culture. It has hundreds of branches in different parts of the world and the Israeli branch was opened three years ago.

Among other things, it offers grants to students of East Asian Studies and trains teachers of Chinese language and culture. Oded Yvette, a teacher at the institute, says that "the institute is an expression of the concept that is beginning to become established in the minds of the Chinese leadership and elites that the geopolitical reality in the world has changed. China was a superpower in the ancient world and its return to the front row of the countries of the world is seen by them as the correction of a distortion."

Yvette says this is the reason why China welcomes the interest in its language by both children and adults.

The language of money

However, often times an attraction to Chinese culture or language is not the source of students' interest.

"It is worthwhile to study Chinese because China will soon conquer the world with its economy," Nelkin says.

Tal Pascal, his friend, adds that his father told him that if he wants to be a businessman in the future, and he has contacts with the Chinese, knowing their language will help him.

Their teacher, Anna Meshulam, who also teaches at the Hebrew University high school and at Havat Hanoar Hazioni in Jerusalem, says that her experience shows that most girls choose French "because it is seen as a romantic language" while the boys choose Chinese for practical reasons - they hope to succeed in the business world.

Tal Ron, the principal of the Hillel school also explains that the idea behind the lessons is to expose the children to a different culture. The choice of Chinese stems from "the far-sighted view that China is a very significant rising power. If someone has a more intimate familiarity with the language, it will open up for him horizons in the future and give him an advantage in a competitive world."

Nevertheless not everyone agrees that this is important. A short while ago, parents of pupils at a Tel Aviv high school got angry that their children were spending so much time on Chinese symbols. What about Bible studies, what about English, they complained.

In Israel, Mandarin is taught. It is the language used by the Chinese media and the one taught in schools there, and is the means of communication with foreigners.

"These studies are merely a taste," says Dr. Lihi Yariv-Laor of the East Asian Studies department at Hebrew University. "If people think that by studying the language they will become directors of businesses and succeed in China, they are mistaken. Only someone with entrepreneurship can succeed there."

Yariv-Laor believes there is value in getting acquainted with such a different culture. In China, she says, language is a large part of the country's culture.

"One has to be taught when to use certain expressions. For example, one has to show modesty in response to compliments and must not accept them like in Western culture," she says. "We could have studied the Arabs, which are closer to us, but it is easier to study those who are different."

The fact that interest in the language is being driven by financial considerations does not bother her.

"Perhaps parents think about making a living in the future but unintentionally it can be for its own sake. The language does not distinguish between male and female. Children learn they can express everything but through different means from those they are used to."

Chinese writing is 3,500 years old, but does not have an alphabet - rather a collection of signs that represent words, she says.

"This opens up an entire world of concepts that are different from what [students] know," she says.

Great leap forward?

The Education Ministry does not have an organized plan for the study of Chinese language. In 1996, Yariv-Laor and Prof. Gideon Shelach, also of the Hebrew University, were asked to develop a curriculum for the teaching of Chinese, but it was never implemented.

"The curriculum included a taste of the language, history and literature. We used films and translated literature and we recommended the study of culture with the language instead of merely learning the signs by heart," Yariv-Laor says.

The curriculum was part of a change of spirit that prevailed in 1996 when Israel changed its linguistic policy, at least in theory. The accepted wisdom was that Hebrew was no longer in danger and the basic principles were laid for an official policy that welcomed cultural openness in the schools toward the languages of new immigrants, such as Russian, and toward languages such and Spanish and Chinese.

Prof. Ilana Shohami, a Tel Aviv University expert in language policy, believes that since then there has been a regression and a return to the nationalistic Hebrew-centric approach that typified the country in its first decades.

She places the blame for the backward trend toward avoiding new languages on the poor results that Israeli pupils achieve on the international PISA language competency tests. Today, she says, all efforts focus on succeeding in these tests. The trend to study Chinese, which is contrary to the official policy, is grassroots; it comes from the parents and the schools themselves, she says.

Shohami sees the strong emphasis on learning English in Israel as an expression of narrow-mindedness. But she may draw a great deal of encouragement from the fact that children today develop independent views.

"French is the language of the past, English the language of the present, and Chinese the language of the future," say the pupils at the Hillel School.