SHANGHAI (Reuters) - American students are getting cold feet about studying Chinese in China, with many study abroad programs in the country seeing a substantial drop in enrolment over the last few years.
At the University of California Education Abroad Program (UCEAP), student enrolment in programs in China is expected to be less than half the level it was only four years ago. Washington-based CET, another leading study abroad group, says interest in China has been falling since 2013.
The apparent waning of interest worries some China watchers. Given the importance of the U.S.-China relationship, having a group of Americans across different industries who speak Chinese and understand the culture is "a matter of national interest", says Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center in Washington.
"We can't respond coherently, effectively and fully to China unless we understand China on its own terms," he said.
The Institute of International Education says the number of U.S. students studying in China fell 3.2 percent in 2012-13 to 14,413, even as overall study abroad numbers rose modestly.
American students' apparent loss of interest contrasts with Chinese students' clamor for a U.S. education. The number of Chinese studying in the United States jumped 16.5 percent in 2013-14 to more than 274,000.
For U.S. students, China's notorious pollution is a concern. Job opportunities are another. As multinationals in China hire mostly local Chinese, a growing percentage of whom have studied abroad, they have less need for foreigners who speak Chinese.
"I came to China thinking I could learn Chinese and get a high paying job. I learned very quickly that was not the case," said Ian Weissgerber, a 25-year-old American graduate student in China. "A lot of Chinese can speak English just as well as I can, and Chinese is their native tongue too."
Gordon Schaeffer, research director at UCEAP, says surveys suggest the decline in study abroad programs in China might also reflect students' migration to science and technology majors, where courses need to be taken in sequence.
Some study abroad executives say a move toward more direct enrolment in Chinese universities could also, in part, account for fewer students taking traditional programs that typically offer a summer or semester overseas.
Wang Huiyao, president of the Center for China and Globalization and the author of a report on foreign students in China, says there are too few agents in the United States bringing students to China to study, and bemoans the U.S. government's inability to force universities to send more American students there.
When students do come to China, they are increasingly coming for shorter periods of time, and often for trips that involve more travel than language study, study abroad executives say.
After a burst of enthusiasm a decade ago, interest in learning Chinese appears to be waning among U.S. students.
Enrolment in entry level Chinese is almost half the level of 2007 at Middlebury College, a private liberal arts college in Vermont renowned for its language instruction.
Last year's total Chinese enrolment was "the lowest in a decade", said Professor Thomas Moran, chair of Middlebury's Chinese department.
Between 2002 and 2006, Chinese language study at U.S. institutes of higher education leapt 50 percent, according to the Modern Language Association (MLA); it grew a further 16 percent between 2006 and 2009.
But from 2009 to 2013, growth in enrolment had slowed to just 2 percent, an MLA study released last month shows.
Enrolment in all foreign language courses at U.S. higher education institutions fell 6.7 percent between 2009 and 2013, according to the MLA study.
"It really comes down to money," says John Thomson, a veteran China study abroad executive. "You're taking yourself out of the job market for a couple years to study an extremely difficult language with no guaranteed pay-off at the end."
Reporting By Alexandra Harney; Additional reporting by Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Alex Richardson