800 US colleges have established a Chinese programme, notes academic A US academic has forecast that Chinese will be neck and neck with English in the race to become the world's dominant language within the next two decades. Zhao Qingguang, a professor at Carleton College in Minnesota, told educators and government officials at the World Chinese Conference in Beijing this week that Chinese culture and language were likely to rise to international prominence in the near future. Borrowing from a 1898 quote by former German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Mr Zhao said: 'What will be the main factor to influence the historical process of the world in the 21st century? Today, we can say that it will be the rise of the Chinese language.' Professor Zhao said that when he first began to teach Chinese at Carleton College 20 years ago, people doubted the usefulness of the language. 'But today, more than 800 American colleges have established a Chinese programme, and this is only the beginning,' he said. Despite the influx of Chinese products onto the world market, China's language and culture were still largely a mystery to the rest of the world and many people's understanding of the country did not go beyond the Great Wall, bound feet and giant pandas. 'The rise of Chinese is the symbol of the rise of China, and it should not be left behind the rise of the economy,' Professor Zhao said. 'We should be more active and passionate in promoting the Chinese language and culture - not sit back and wait.' The number of students taking up Chinese studies still lags behind more traditional second-language options. About 24,000 American high school students learn Chinese, compared with the more than one million learning French. State Councillor Chen Zhili said it was incumbent on China, as the home of the Chinese language, to actively advance Chinese teaching and help learners around the world. To that end, China would recruit overseas volunteers to teach the language and try to boost interest in Putonghua in neighbouring countries in the next five years. From September, China will for the first time recruit foreign volunteers to teach Putonghua overseas. Volunteers with university degrees and qualifications in Chinese language education will be hired by agencies of the National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language - known as Han Ban - to work in overseas schools and universities for a year. The recruits will be given a monthly allowance of US$400. 'Chinese language teachers are in great demand. More than 30 countries have put requests to us for teachers and we have dispatched 1,000 volunteers each year to 17 countries,' said Xue Hualing, director of Han Ban's volunteers department.