漢華國際中文學院 -- Why African Nations Are Teaching Mandarin Chinese on Their State School Curricula
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Why African Nations Are Teaching Mandarin Chinese on Their State School Curricula

http://modernnotion.com/chinese-language-classes-africa-rise-heres/

 

Last year, South African officials announced a plan to introduce a new optional language into their public school curriculum by 2016: Mandarin Chinese. From one vantage, this wasn’t a weird or controversial decision, given the size and commercial scope of China—giving kids the chance to learn the language of one of the world’s superpowers is a logical thing to do. But given that South Africa usually puts priority on getting kids to learn some of the nation’s eleven official languages, or other more commonly spoken regional languages, a big push to get Mandarin on the curriculum seemed a bit out of character. And given how hard it’s been for nations like America to wrap their heads around Mandarin as a subject for public school learning, the rapid and dogged advance towards that end in South Africa seems incredible.

 

This isn’t just a South African phenomenon. Much of Africa has, in the past couple of years, pushed to get more Chinese language and culture into national educational curricula. This year alone, Uganda and Zimbabwe announced plans to work Mandarin into their compulsory schools as an optional language. And for the better part of a decade, Kenyan higher education institutions have been ramping up their Chinese language programs in part to get more people trained to go back into their communities and teach it in local schools.

 

And this hasn’t been a unilateral phenomenon—China’s actually made huge efforts to assist in these language-learning programs, creating Confucius Institutes to train teachers and offer language-learning courses around the continent, providing funding for implementation, and in South Africa’s case even lobbying the government for the language’s inclusion and offering volunteer teachers to aid the transition.

 

On the African side, the rush towards Chinese language learning clearly reflects the growing importance of Beijing in regional trade and commerce. In 2009, China became South Africa’s largest trading partner, and as of 2013, Chinese business in Africa topped $166 billion, with Chinese infrastructural investments and tourism, among other wider exchanges, rising as well. It’s become an established and well-known fact in many regions in Africa that getting work in a Chinese company, especially as an interpreter or translator, is a great way to get yourself into a top income bracket. So making Mandarin a part of the public school curriculum is not just a great way to increase your nation’s capacity to interface with a key trade partner, but a great way to ensure that not just rich, private school students have access to a vital high-income-earner skill.

 

On the Chinese side, aiding in the creation of these language programs is about a something deeper than just having capable cultural intermediaries in countries in which they work. It’s about creating goodwill. China’s reputation in Africa is not stellar. Many associate them with resource exploitation, cheap and unreliable goods, and immigrant labor—which is never popular anywhere you go in the world. Some nations even make hardline policies against making deals with China on these grounds.

 

There’ve been attempts over the years by Chinese authorities to improve their profile in Africa by helping with development projects (with far less strings than Western powers usually attach to such aid) or even offering scholarships for Africans to study in China. But scandals and revelations have led many to the somewhat fair assumption that these favors are usually doled out unevenly, used as implicit bribes for areas of concern to a nation’s leaders or wealthiest citizens rather than to the general population, which still matters.

 

Aiding in language learning is a good way for China to overcome that stigma as it’s a nationwide product, handled through the government, for which there is already general and growing demand. By helping out, China seems like a team player benefitting everyone rather than a select cadre. It also gets to introduce Africans, including some skeptics, to Chinese culture and society on a wider scale, hopefully winning back some goodwill where it can. And it gets better on-the-ground intermediaries and business contacts to boot, boosting its future facility to make deals in the countries involved. It’s one of the few win-win soft power building projects out there.

 

That said, whether these language courses will succeed, either scholastically or in building cultural ties and business capacity, remains to be seen. If these initial programs reap dividends for either side, we’re likely to see still more Mandarin Chinese programs pop up across the continent with Chinese aid. That’ll just cement the global importance of the language, meaning it’ll be more imperative for Americans and Europeans to hop into gear about teaching Chinese on par with other languages than ever before. But without the same sources of pressure and aid as Africa has used to push forward, we might keep on lagging in the quest for relevant linguistic skills in the modern era.



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