Chinese could overtake French and German in popularity in US schools by 2015, according to a leading expert.
Fuelled by China's expected emergence as the next superpower, schools are responding to government-led schemes promoting the learning of Chinese in the national interest and a surge of demand from parents and pupils who see Mandarin as a key skill in the future employment market.
US law-makers are considering proposals to funnel $1.3 billion (pound;730 million) into Chinese instruction in US schools. Last month, America's defence department announced a $700,000 initiative to devise a Chinese curriculum for schools.
Next September, Chinese will make its debut in America's "advanced placement" curriculum - a fast-track initiative for high-achieving students - after 2,400 schools expressed an interest in it.
"It's astounding - the interest is extraordinary," said Thomas Matt, director of the world languages initiative at the College Board, which administers the 15,000-school placement scheme. The rise of the Chinese economy is the principal factor."
The Chinese economy continues to boom, and grew by 9 per cent between January and September this year.
At present, 70 per cent of US language students study Spanish, reflecting America's proximity to Latin America and its Hispanic immigrant population, followed by 20 per cent who take French, and 6 per cent German, Mr Matt said just 24,000 secondary-school pupils study Chinese - a tiny proportion of language students, according to the Asia Society.
"Chinese has got a long way to go, but if projections are accurate it could eclipse French and German within a decade," said Mr Matt.
"It's the language of the moment," said Marty Lacker of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
Until recently, Chinese was largely confined to so-called "heritage"
courses at schools serving Chinatown communities.
Booming interest in the subject comes as China mounts cultural outreach efforts with Western countries. For example, it is convening an inaugural international congress on teaching Chinese in Beijing in June.
Representing US schools were officials from Chicago, where 3,000 students are taking Chinese at 20 schools this year, with another five schools expected to join them by June.
It used to be a hard sell, said Robert Davis, manager of Chicago Public Schools' Chicago Chinese Connection Program. Now officials are turning away schools that want to offer Chinese.
"We're constrained by the availability of trained staff," he said.