Sunday, September 27, 2020

Ya’ll gonna learn Chinese”

Beginning August next year, the University of Botswana will produce more Mandarin speakers like Nene Dintho. This is Dintho’s story.

When he is in the company of Chinese people, Dintho (whom some would remember as “Nene T” from a Radio Botswana jazz programme) converses in Mandarin effortlessly. Dintho says that for someone like him who is from Maun, this foreign language is not much of a challenge as the sounds of the Setswana dialect spoken in his area are also found in Mandarin. He gives an example of the “tj” sounds which he says is predominant in both Mandarin and Setawana. Mandarin for elder sister is “tjietjie” and Setawana for freshly-harvested maize is “matjatjamu.” What we have come to know as “di-fong kong” (South African slang for made-in-China rinky-dink) is “busi tjenda” in Mandarin.

“The Mandarin ‘b’ is pronounced as ‘p’ and ‘zh’ as ‘j’. Mandarin has 250 syllables and five different tones. Depending on intonation ‘ma’ can mean different things,” he says adding that to an extent, Setawana is also tonal.

However, Dintho’s introduction to that language 20 years ago was a painful experience. He had flown on a South African Airlines plane to China, his luggage got lost along the way and he had a really tough time trying to explain his ordeal to airport staff who spoke very little English and were not terribly keen on doing business with a carrier owned by an apartheid government. In his first few weeks in China, Dintho could not distinguish between the different denominations of the Chinese currency and had to rely on the honesty of cashiers.

Fortunately, the language school he attended had other English-speaking Africans ÔÇô he particularly remembers Zambians ÔÇô and he would practice Mandarin with them. After three months and with lots of practice, he began to handle conversational Mandarin quite well. He can write it as well.

Over recent years China has emerged as an economic powerhouse. It is the second largest economy in the world when measured on a purchasing power parity basis, the fourth largest economy when measured in exchange-rate terms and, what should of particular interest to us, the second largest diamond consumer in the world.

China’s new economic stature has brought about realization of a prediction made in the chorus of a song by a Chinese-American rapper four years ago. “Ya’ll gonna learn Chinese”, Mr. Jin (real name Jin Au-yeung) told the world on Learn Chinese. Elsewhere in an MC battle, Mr. Jin lyrically put down an opponent who dissed China and Chinese peeps in general with the following: “Check your Timbs/They probably say ‘made in China.’ Timbs is abbreviation for Timbaland shoes.

Botswana does a lot of business with China, buys a lot of goods from there (some of it busi tjenda Timbs) and that level of commercial interaction necessarily compels us to do what Mr. Jin said we were going to do. With very few Batswana speaking Mandarin, it has become necessary to turn the situation around.

UB has come to grips with that reality and next year it will establish a Chinese Language Centre to produce more Batswana Mandarin speakers. The Chinese call these centers Confucius institutes (in honour of Confucius, the Chinese thinker and social thinker whose teachings and philosophy have deeply influenced the Chinese) and have established more than 170 of them around the world ÔÇô 12 in Africa.

Says a press statement from UB’s public affairs department: “The University of Botswana and the Shanghai Norma University of China are about to enter into a partnership agreement facilitated by the Embassy of China, that will see a Chinese Language Centre being established at the University of Botswana. Through it, Chinese language is expected to be taught at the University effective August 2009. The Chinese language will initially be taught via a two-year programme after which those who will want to upgrade further will be sent to China for further studies.

Jacob Sekgoni of UB’s public affairs department confirms that the Chinese they will teach is Mandarin. Mandarin is the official language of mainland China, Taiwan and one of Singapore’s four official languages.

The UB statement also says that the Chinese government will provide teaching staff in the short term. At the same time, UB will be sending several academic staff members to China in order to learn to teach Chinese.

An engineer by training, Dintho offers translation services part-time and he says that there has been a boom in this line of work as more and more Chinese businesspeople set up in Botswana. Dintho worked with the police and the department of administration of justice when the BHC scandal broke out in the early 1990s. The reason was that a Chinese construction company was implicated in the scandal. He has also worked with several organisations in both the public and private sector, among them the Botswana Export Development and Investment Authority whose brochures he translated English into Mandarin.

While appreciative of UB’s effort, Dintho feels that the learners would be better off in China because they would be forced to use the language everyday.
“At the school that I went to the instructors advised us to watch Chinese TV, read Chinese newspapers and listen to Chinese radio in order to internalise the language. The local environment would not give learners adequate exposure and they would also not get the opportunity to practice the language outside the classroom,” Dintho says.

In the same manner that people like Dintho are at ease with Mandarin, there are also some Chinese people who can do the same with Setswana. No local Chinese person has developed an interest in Setswana as a shopkeeper in Mahalapye who prefers to be called by his Setswana name, Katlego. His shop is called “MoChina yo o iseng Setswana” – the Chinese who knows Setswana. Katlego is a member of ZCC, by his account has made a pilgrimage to the church’s headquarters in Moria, South Africa, has a passion for kwasakwasa and names Franco’s Robala nnana as his favourite song. Upon being granted citizenship, Katlego says he plans to run for a council seat in Mahalapye.

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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.