Overland Park — Less than one year after it opened, the Kansas University Confucius Institute has proven to be a big draw with Midwesterners eager to learn Chinese culture and language.
The institute, based at the university's Edwards Campus in Overland Park, is one of 120 around the world, with just four in the United States.
A joint project of Kansas University, the Chinese Ministry of Education and Huazhong Normal University, the institute has attracted 275 students since in May to its classes in Mandarin Chinese.
Many are schoolchildren, but the course is also popular with professionals and other business people for whom a working knowledge of China's most widely spoken dialect would be an advantage.
Jack Nagle, an engineer with Overland Park-based Black & Veatch, is one such student. Although his Chinese co-workers find his mispronunciations amusing, his attempts to speak their language have sealed a bond between him and those he manages at the engineering and construction firm.
"It has really bridged a gap and has helped us work together," said Nagle, who hopes to visit China someday. "I think they appreciate me trying to learn their language."
So high is the interest among Black & Veatch workers in learning Chinese language and culture that, at the company's request, the institute conducts classes twice a week at the firm's offices. Nearly 50 employees have participated so far.
Black & Veatch employees communicate often via teleconference and videoconference with their counterparts in the company's Beijing office.
"I think that people understand that Chinese is economically and politically relevant," said Sheree Willis, associate director for institute programs.
According to the Kansas Department of Commerce, China purchased more than $300 million in Kansas goods and services in 2005, making it the third leading buyer of Kansas products.
"A lot of companies like Black & Veatch are very forward-looking in understanding that in order to be effective, international companies need to be very well-versed not only in other languages but in other cultures," Willis said.
That is why the Confucius Institute is so attractive to area businesses, said John Watson, director of trade development for the Kansas Department of Commerce.
"I believe that the more business executives and the more students take advantage of the opportunity to learn the language, the more opportunities created for business between Kansas and China," Watson said.
Employees from Harrah's Casino, Sprint and many small firms have taken the classes.
Saturday morning classes have attracted whole families, some of whom plan to visit the country and others who are just curious about the language and the culture.
"The classes have been really popular at Black & Veatch," said David Swift, who coordinates global professional training for the company. "We did one class last fall, and when we announced that we had room in it for 20 people, it was full in less than five minutes."
Last month, chief engineers got a crash course in Mandarin to prepare for a corporate board meeting in Beijing this spring.
"Chinese is very difficult to learn," Nagle said. "It's not a Romance language. You could have one word pronounced many different ways, and each pronunciation means something different."
The institute also is partnering with the Kansas Department of Education to bring more Chinese teachers from China to public schools in Kansas.