Friday, July 19, 2024

For when China rules the world

At one of Gaborone’s private secondary schools, Rainbow High School, 25 students ÔÇô all of them in Form One ÔÇô constitute a pilot group that started learning Mandarin this term. The school’s principal, Michael Sanassiee, has a prediction. Given the changing geopolitical dynamics in the world, he states, two important languages for the future will be Mandarin and one of the Indian languages, possibly Hindi. He is, of course, referring to the growing influence of China and India on the world stage.

There is no shortage of authoritative opinion that points to a fast-approaching new Sino-Indo dominated world order. Crux of Asia: China, India, and the Emerging Global Order, a publication released in January by the United States think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggests that “China and India’s sustained economic growth fuels their increasing geopolitical and military influence”.

The two countries also present a huge market potential, with China’s population of 1.3 billion and India’s at just over 1 billion, and growing at a fast rate.

Sanassiee, the school principal, sits back on his chair and gazes into a crystal ball; “We are of the view that China will be the superpower of the world, and as we move into a knowledge-based society and Botswana wants to compete with the rest of the world, it makes sense to prepare our students to engage meaningfully in that future global village.”

What is happening at Rainbow High School is part of a worldwide movement towards Mandarin in which the Chinese government is an active protagonist. This is done through local chapters of the Confucius Institute (CI), a public institute that aims to promote Chinese language and culture, support the international teaching of Chinese language, and facilitate cultural exchanges. Since 2005, more than 500 CIs have reportedly been rolled out in over 94 countries.

Jerry Chen is the Chinese Director of the CI at the University of Botswana. He states that when the Botswana chapter opened in 2009, it was one of the 15 in Africa. Today, there are 36 CIs in Africa. The Rainbow High pilot project is done is conjunction with the CI at University of Botswana, which provides a language teacher for the twice-a-week lessons. Similar programmes also run at two other private secondary schools, Maru a Pula and Westwood.

One estimate indicates that 50 million people outside China are studying Mandarin. Another account suggests that the number could hit the billion mark by next year. An international HR consultancy says in the past five years, jobs requiring Mandarin have grown 75 percent. In Asian countries such as Thailand, Chinese is now nearly as important a second language as English.

In Britain, there are CIs at seven universities, and the government has put plans in place to support the teaching of Mandarin, perhaps in response to an observation by the Confederation of British Industry that Chinese is one of the most sought-after languages by British businesses. Some countries are going much further, such as Pakistan which has decided to make Mandarin teaching compulsory in schools.

“It is obvious why Chinese is becoming more popular,” Li Quan, a professor of Chinese at Renmin University in Beijing, said in Britain’s Telegraph. “We are now a major economy. The West has started to realise that if you want to get to know China and understand how the country works, it is important to learn Mandarin. And the world now understands that China is going to be a force for a long time, so learning the language is essential.”

Chen, who was one of the first three staff members from China at the CI at University of Botswana, still has memories of the inaugural Mandarin class of July 2009.

“When we first planned, we thought we would get 20 students or 40 at most,” he recalls. “But when we advertised, more than 150 applied ÔÇô to our surprise. Since at the time we had only two instructors, we could only accommodate 80 learners.”

The language programme at CI is structured in 12 levels, with proficiency increasing as one goes up the levels. Chen points out that even with the public enthusiasm, certain practicalities make it difficult for everyone to complete the 12 levels. The first challenge is that classes are offered in the evening, which is not the most convenient time for most people. Those who manage to stick to the programme find that they don’t have ample opportunities to practise the language. This would probably explain why out of the initial group of 80, only eight slogged through the entire programme.

One of the best students from that course is pursuing a Master’s programme in Chinese as a second language at a university in China. When she completes her studies and returns, she will claim the distinct record of being the first Motswana Chinese teacher.

It is probable that more will follow in her footsteps. The University of Botswana already has a Department of Chinese Studies, and students in that programme will spend their third year of study in China.

At the local CI, Chen puts the current student enrolment in different levels of the language programme at more than 300. Out of these, he estimates that a third is from within the university community, another third from the private sector, and the rest from government departments.

He suggests that the locals’ attraction to the language could be due to two things: an interest, especially among the youth, in foreign culture and business.

“Some have told me that China is becoming a superpower and they want to know how China made this progress,” he said. “Others want to do business with China, particularly those from private sector. They are of the opinion that the ability to speak a bit of Chinese will help them to secure better opportunities.”

China’s economic involvement in Africa is something Sanassiee has followed closely and comments on authoritatively. He is convinced that we are yet to see the full extent of China’s influence and power on the global stage, and he wants his students to be able to navigate that world.

“We are preparing our students to engage meaningfully with China when they become leaders of this country,” he says.

Language experts doubt that Mandarin will ever become a world language to the extent that English is, but Mandarin enthusiasts are unfazed. Sanassiee relates an encounter with the mother of one of the students in the Mandarin class at his school.

“She told me that, ‘every Tuesday and Thursday (the days of the Mandarin class) evening our daughter coaches the whole family; even our two-year-old is learning the language’.”

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