Why China is trying to learn Africa’s languages
The country is pushing diplomats to learn the local tongues of strategic areas.
The number of new languages China’s diplomatic university will be adding this year, including Tigrinya, Ndebele, and Comorian
By Michael Erard
May 16 2017
Foreign language learning at US and British colleges and universities has been steadily declining. Enrollments in foreign language college courses dropped 6.7 percent between 2009 and 2013, according to the Modern Language Association, and only half of four-year colleges and universities in the US require any foreign language course at all.
But there is one country that is investing more in language learning, especially for rarer languages: China.
The Beijing Foreign Studies University, a state school known as Beiwai, already offers 84 language majors, but its goal is to teach all the official languages of countries with which China has diplomatic relations. To that end, it’s now adding courses or majors in 11 new languages that span the Middle East, the Pacific, Africa, and eastern Europe.
The new language tracks include Kurdish, Maori, and Samoan, as well as the likes of Tigrinya, Ndebele, and Comorian, which are specific to certain regions of Africa. And though some of them have very few speakers (Maori, for instance, has an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 adult speakers, according to Ethnologue), all 11 of them combined encompass the native languages of 60 million people.
Why is China investing so much in languages? In 2013, it announced a major economic development initiative, called the “One Belt One Road Initiative,” later shortened to the “Belt and Road Initiative,” a global trade network to connect Asia with Europe and Africa along five trade routes. Along these routes live 63 percent of the global population, according to the Chinese, and many of them will not speak Western colonial languages.
Even if these locals did know English or French, two major languages in these regions, the Chinese government wouldn’t want to use them to communicate. English and French are colonial languages in Africa, and using them “perpetuates hegemony,” said Sun Xiaomeng, the current dean of the School of Asian and African Studies at Beiwai, in a profile from the Beijing Review, an English-language newsweekly published by the Chinese government. Diplomats, business people, and aid workers who speak local languages can be more engaged, “and at the same time, help Africans preserve their heritage and retain their cultural values,” she said. It’s also likely that the Chinese don’t want to do business in the language of a rival superpower.
The new language majors at Beiwai are “most certainly impressive,” said Scott McGinniss, a professor at the US Defense Language Institute (DLI), where American servicemembers get language training, and coordinator of the Interagency Language Roundtable. “When they’re talking about a language associated with countries like Botswana and Comoros, for which only the Peace Corps professes any explicit prioritization, that strikes me as a significant investment,” McGinniss said in an email. Some of the languages are rarely taught and spoken by relatively so few people that it will be challenging to develop classroom materials to teach them, he said.
The US government has expressed little interest in most of the new languages China is investing in. Official language schools for the military (like the Defense Language Institute) and diplomats (the Foreign Service Institute) have the combined capacity to teach around 70 languages. But every year, federal agencies put together a list of languages they deem critical for their work; in 2016, that list included only three (Kurdish, which is spoken in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey; Samoan; and Tongan) of the new Beiwai offerings.
For over a decade, China has built the global reach of its soft power through teaching Mandarin — as of 2016, there were nearly 500 Confucius Institutes around the world, 46 of which were located in Africa. (The Confucius Institute, a nonprofit that promotes Chinese language and culture, is the equivalent of an Alliance Francaise or Goethe Institute.)