It does not take much for foreigners to master the basic Putonghua sounds. Simply place the tip of your tongue between your teeth and bite hard until you taste blood. Now say 'shi, shi, shi, shi' in undulating tones. Next, roll your tongue back until the tip is at least one-third down your windpipe and say it again. Repeat, ad infinitum. This was how one western student described his first daunting day in a Chinese-language class, while the written form was 'a cryptic secret code we could never crack', said another. Behind these facetious comments lies a truism that the Chinese language can be intimidating, but as the mainland's economy continues to flourish, millions around the world are starting to jump over this mental block. The education ministry said recently there are now more than 25 million people studying Putonghua outside China, and they predict that number will top 100 million by the time Beijing hosts the Olympics in 2008. About 2,500 universities in 85 countries are offering courses, as are secondary schools everywhere from Bratislava to Boston. On the mainland, the surge in interest has spawned a major industry. More than 60,000 foreigners are currently taking undergraduate classes in universities around the country, while tens of thousands more are studying in the multitude of language schools that have recently sprung up. Well over half the students are from South Korea, where the American dream has lost some lustre, and China is now widely viewed as the great hope for economic salvation. More than 10 per cent of students are from Japan, while the majority of others comes from Southeast Asia, western Europe and North America. On the plus side, the grammar is quite straightforward, but for most students the first few months of study involve seemingly endless hours attempting to memorise indecipherable characters, all the while marvelling at the brain's alarming ability to forget, to readily discard information that took pains to accrue. And the legendary tones, of course, lead to an endless supply of embarrassing anecdotes, where the slightest slip can apparently turn any innocuous remark into a snide comment about your fellow students' genitalia. It takes some months before the blur starts to focus. One professor who has been teaching the language for 10 years insists that there is no mystery to mastery, all it takes is persistence. Moreover, he is among the many here who argue that learning the intricate language develops and expands the brain, which 'inevitably makes you live longer'. That may be so, but the demoralised and despondent students might argue that it just feels like it.