NEW DELHI // The Indian education board's ambitious plans to introduce Mandarin lessons into schools will begin with up to 300 teachers being trained in China.
After a survey at 500 schools this year found that students were interested in learning Mandarin, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) decided to offer the dialect as an optional second or third language, after English.
The plan is to introduce Mandarin to pupils from grade six onwards. But first, the teachers have to be trained.
In August, S Jaishankar, India's ambassador to China, and Xu Lin, the director general of Hanban, the official Chinese organisation overseeing the teaching of Mandarin abroad, signed an agreement to train 300 Indian teachers at universities in China.
The Mandarin option will be rolled out as a pilot project, starting with selected schools in New Delhi where tone and greetings will be taught using software.
"There are enough Chinese speakers here but just not enough good ones," said Jabin T Jacob, the assistant director of the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi. "You need two years of concentrated study for anyone to even get the basics in school. This language has no short cuts."
There is no shortage of Indians with Chinese language skills, but those with Mandarin language degrees prefer to work in the more lucrative sectors of translation or private education.
Tourism in India - working in what is popularly known as the "Buddhist circuit", catering for places of religious worship for East Asian tourists - is also a popular career for those fluent in Mandarin.
"Universities do teach the language but very few stay on long enough to get teaching expertise," said Mr Jacob. "Everything is more lucrative than teaching, especially in the private sector."
Indians who speak Mandarin can charge up to 1,500 rupees (Dh106) an hour for private classes or interpretation. It can take up to two years to teach the language. Those who do train to become qualified language teachers often concentrate on one area of expertise instead of general teaching, said Mr Jacob.
India and China have had a troubled and, at times, violent relationship. This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Indo-China war. However, since the early 1990s, India has pursued more friendly relations with its eastern neighbours, including China.
Those efforts have netted huge benefits. Trade between the two countries was worth US$74 billion (Dh271bn) last year and, in 2010, the prime ministers of both countries estimated that figure would reach $100bn by 2015.
That translates into huge potential for Indian businessmen in China.
Mr Jacob believes that there are many reasons to study a rival country's language, although the most important reason for Indians "might be the pursuit of profit".
"If you speak the language, you can negotiate, understand its laws and deal with the authorities," he added.
G Venkat Raman, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Kozhikode in Kerala, teaches Mandarin to about 60 of his graduate students each weekend.
He also teaches a required Mandarin course to 120 students in an emerging-markets course at the Great Lakes Institute of Management in Chennai.
He received his postdoctoral degree in political science from Peking University in China in 2008, but first he had to pass a Mandarin language course.
"It is a good move by the government," said Mr Raman. "But they should also spread awareness in universities as well. Schoolchildren may be too young to realise the relevance and importance of a language like Mandarin."