With more than 30 million people now said to be learning Chinese as a foreign language, interest in Mandarin has never been so great.
The Ministry of Education hopes the figure will eventually increase to 100 million as more than 2,500 universities in 100 countries already offer Chinese courses.
But some wonder how the supply of instructors can possibly keep up with demand.
For Ken Carroll the solution was simple - podcasts.
A podcast is an audio broadcast often listened to on a computer or downloaded to an MP3 player such as an iPod hence the name.
Podcasting is unique because it gives a person the ability to subscribe to someone's podcast and listen to it whenever or wherever they want.
Since setting up Chinesepod.com in September last year, the website has gone on to become one of the top five podcast sites in the world, according to Yahoo.com's global podcast rankings.
It has had 5 million downloads to date, and boasts about 20,000 visits to the website every day.
"We didn't really know what to expect when we set it up, but it didn't take long for it to take off," said Carroll.
"But the global interest in Mandarin has surprised me to some extent, and the new technology has opened up a new world."
The podcasting medium for learning or teaching a language appears to be a growing market.
In the summer, Chinese authorities launched linese.com to offer Mandarin courses online, including podcasts.
The site also includes audio-visual presentations, interactive exercises and advice for teachers of Mandarin.
Despite the huge popularity of Chinesepod and the growth of similar sites, Carroll believes the new medium can supplement traditional language schools rather than replace them.
Carroll has worked in China as an English teacher since 1994, first in Taiwan before moving to Shanghai four years ago. He went on to set up the English language training centres Kai En, which now have five in the city.
"With podcasts, you can listen to them anywhere, such as on the bus on the way to work or at the gym," said the 45-year-old Irishman.
"We are not trying to replace teachers with a piece of software, just trying to facilitate communication through other tools.
"With language schools, it means making a change to your lifestyle. When you finish work, instead of relaxing, you have to go halfway across town to get to class; it's just not very efficient.
"However, language schools do have a very important role, they help you to speak the language. I think people still have to go to language school or have lessons with a teacher, but podcasts mean you can spend less time there.
"You can even listen to them on the way to the lessons, it makes things a lot more efficient."
Moreover, language schools in China face particular difficulties and challenges, said Carroll, which actually gave him the inspiration to try to find new forms of teaching languages.
"I wanted to do something more scalable, something different and, to be honest, something more profitable," said Carroll, who taught English in countries across Europe before coming to China.
"There are a lot of barriers for language schools here. The modernization of different sectors in China has not quite reached the education and training sector."
The Economist magazine reported earlier this year that while the market for English-language education in China is huge, the profits are not.
Foreign chains need a Chinese partner when entering the market.
One of the biggest language learning groups, English First, has had to franchise all but four of its 68 schools.
After a decade in China it has yet to recoup its investment, said the news report.
"It means many centres can't re-invest money back into the centres to improve them and expand," said Carroll.
"Without the investment, it means the students are affected.
"I would say that, generally speaking, the standard of language services across the board is not of a very high quality.
"You could also say that it's not a very efficient market the schools, and the teachers, will only be used for part of the day."
As the Internet developed, applications to learn languages began to appear.
But they were essentially no different to textbooks, according to Carroll, who is also the chairman of the Irish Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.
"They were essentially just you and the computer programme; there was no interaction, it was so impersonal," he said.
"We still wanted to find a way to use the Net in terms of distribution, but in a personalized way."
Carroll's Canadian business partner Hank Horkoff then suggested podcasts last year.
"He just came into the office one time and mentioned it," said Carroll.
"We looked into it and it sounded promising it seemed to add a whole new aspect to what was then available on the Internet.
"So, we experimented for a couple of weeks and found out it seemed to work really well.
"We then put together about two or three lessons and just put them out there."
Caroll heads a small team of speakers, both Chinese and Western, that record the podcasts, backed by a 30-strong production team.
The daily lessons covering a series of topics run for up to 15 minutes.
The podcasts are free, but other services on the site, such as transcripts of lessons and Flash-based teaching materials attract subscription charges.
People from dozens of countries download the podcasts, according to Carroll, with the biggest demand coming from the United States, the UK and China itself.
Henning Baars, a university professor in Cologne, Germany, said he began using Chinesepod to learn Chinese in April.
The 35-year-old, who is married to a Chinese woman, said he found previous programmes that he used, both on the Net and in books, were either too basic or too advanced.
"The podcasts seem great to help you reach an intermediate level," said Baars.
"It has helped improve my language learning a lot. It fits in well with my lifestyle, and I tend to listen to them when I'm on my way to work or just doing chores at home."
Carroll attributed the success of the project to responding to users' comments.
"It's certainly not user generated, as that would never work, but it is user driven in the sense we respond to the things they don't understand and want to learn about," he said.
As podcasting develops, the next major development is video casts.
Serge Melnyk, from Canada, works as an educational director in a bilingual international school in Shanghai.
He has been studying Mandarin for more than 15 years, and has a master's degree in Chinese Linguistics.
The 31-year-old set up Melnyks.com in January to offer Mandarin language podcasts, and has also produced videocasts on the site.
"Podcasts are good as additional listening materials," he said.
"You can't substitute a real good 'human' teacher with audio recordings. But learning Chinese through podcasts is also different from just recordings. It's an audio on demand, it's more personal than just audio tapes or CDs. There is a lot of communication and interaction with my listeners.
"If you are in China, videocasts maybe can not help much. But for those who want to learn Chinese and are located somewhere else, it's interesting to see how people speak Chinese, how they behave."
Carroll said he was also hoping to launch videocasts in the near future. "Video podcasts will certainly happen," he said.
"The difference between video and audio will remain, however. They are simply different media: audio allows mobile learning while you do housework, jog, or sit in traffic.
"Video is more sedentary, there's a place for both.
"A video of our studio lesson wouldn't add that much to our present lessons, but video could be used to introduce some very different kinds of learning such as drama or visual vocabulary.
"We're experimenting and we'll probably be making a video push by the end of the year."
However, the next main target for Carroll is developing the EnglishPod.com service, mainly targeting Chinese people learning English.
It was set up at around the same time as Chinesepod, and attracted about 300,000 visits to the site last month.
"We haven't really concentrated on it so much as it didn't offer the same opportunities as ChinesePod," said Carroll.
"But we are now planning to put together a dedicated team for it.
"English for the Chinese is the really big market. The problem is that at the moment there's not much of a podcast culture here. But I think that will change drastically within five years.
"With so many people learning English here, there just are not enough teachers to go round."
(China Daily 09/28/2006 page1)