Chinese language skills will open doors within the military for young officers and give them a leg up in business careers down the road, Citadel officials say.

The state's military college announced this week that it has been awarded a $200,000 Project Go grant from the Institute of International Education to help create more opportunities for cadets to learn Chinese. The money will be used to expand Chinese language classes, which are open to all students, as well as opportunities for ROTC cadets to study in China. Project Go is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.

The Citadel is one of a growing number of colleges and universities in South Carolina expanding Chinese language and culture programs. Language department leaders said the demand is fueled by students who recognize China's role as a global economic powerhouse.

The Citadel began offering elementary Chinese in 2007, said Mark Del Mastro, head of the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures. It added an intermediate-level class in 2008. By 2010, The Citadel will offer both the elementary and intermediate class every semester, he said.

It's important to offer the classes regularly, he said. With any foreign language, but "particularly a language as challenging as Chinese, it's critical you don't take any breaks with the language."

Chinese classes carry six credits and meet five days a week, he said, so students must make a commitment to learning the language. So far, more than 80 percent of students who complete the elementary level move on the intermediate level, he said.

Lt. Col. Michael Brady of The Citadel's Army ROTC said foreign language skills and an understanding of other cultures are important in today's military. When he started his military career 19 years ago, he said, "we learned how to fight." But today, officers need not only traditional military skills but also the kind of knowledge necessary for successful humanitarian and peace-keeping missions.

The U.S. will likely be partners with China in many such missions in the future, he said. Brady also said Chinese is one of 10 languages on the Army's "critical languages" list.

And, he added, officers who learn Chinese can use it in the business world after leaving military service.

It's likely the business connection that has increased the demand at other state schools.

The College of Charleston offers three years of Chinese instruction and the program is thriving, said Mary Beth Heston, director of the Asian Studies program. Many students who major in international business also are adding a minor in Asian studies, she said.

Marg Warehime, chairman of the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of South Carolina, said the demand for Chinese is growing rapidly. "Every year we've had to add one or more sections at a different level," she said.

The university last year launched the Confucius Institute, through a partnership with Beijing Language and Cultural University. The program will not only expand offerings at the university but also promote Chinese instruction throughout South Carolina, she said.

Del Mastro said The Citadel, with about 2,000 cadets enrolled, expects to fill all 24 spaces in its elementary Chinese class next year. That represents a lot of interest because Chinese study is difficult and requires a deep commitment, he said. Del Mastro said he thinks the grant marks the beginning of the program's expansion and hopes the school can offer advanced Chinese language classes in the future.