Nelson Mandela was right when he said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
China seems to know the importance of speaking to people in their tongue, and it’s not stopping here. China is also encouraging Africans to learn Mandarin.
Globally, enrollment in foreign language courses has dropped in the recent years. In China, though, the story is different. Up to 84 language majors are being offered at the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), a state school known as Beiwai. Eleven more languages spanning the Pacific, Africa, the Middle East and eastern Europe are being taught here as well.
The 11 languages include Kurdish, Maori, Samoan, Tigrinya, Ndebele, and Comorian, which are only used in certain regions of Africa. Although a single language is spoken among a small population, all 11 combined encompass the native languages of 60 million people, according to Ethnologue.
In 2013, China announced a major economic development initiative dubbed the “One Belt One Road Initiative,” which was later shortened to the “Belt and Road Initiative.” The initiative is a global trade network aimed at connecting Asia with Europe and Africa along five trade routes. According to the China, these routes hold up to 63 percent of the global population who will not speak Western colonial languages.
Most African can speak English and French, but using these colonial languages in Africa, is “perpetuating hegemony” Sun Xiaomeng, the current dean of the School of Asian and African Studies at Beiwai said in an interview. Speaking to locals in their dialect “helps Africans preserve their heritage, and retain their cultural values,” she added.
Prior to her position, Xiaomeng made her maiden African trip to Nigeria for her master's program in the renowned Ahmed Bello University in 2005, where she got an opportunity to put into practice her language skills in Hausa. She had majored in Hausa at the University where she’s a professor today.
Promotion of Mandarin and Chinese culture
While Chinese are learning local dialects, including Kiswahili, the Beijing government is also encouraging Africans to learn Mandarin and Chinese culture.
Through the Chinese government-sponsored Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms, more Africans are enrolling for Mandarin. Up to 60 institutes are spread out across the continent, giving locals an opportunity to learn and interact with the Chinese culture.
In association with the Ministry of Education, BFSU is set to expand its foreign language program and increase the number of languages it teaches to 100. By 2020, it plans to teach all the official languages used in the countries with which China has diplomatic relations.
In addition to the Confucius Institutes and classrooms, China is also sponsoring African students to study in China, further strengthening the developing relations. The number of African students studying in China under full scholarships has been increasing. Up to 18,000 students were sponsored to study in China between 2013 and 2015.
The increasing presence of Chinese in Africa is, however, not being appreciated by some Africans who argue they are taking over businesses.
Last month, traders in Kampala protested the influx of Chinese traders flooding the Ugandan market with cheap retail products. Led by the City Mayor, Erias Lukwago, the protestors argued that the Chinese traders enjoyed tax reliefs, unlike the locals, allowing them to sell products at lower prices.
Last May Zimbabweans said that the Chinese were “bleeding” the country’s economy by supporting President Robert Mugabe. The secretary for international relations, People’s Democratic Party (PDP) Willias Madzimure called on Zimbabweans and international stakeholders to push the Chinese to exit the country.
All in all, “Language is a powerful tool that mobilizes or immobilizes people,” Yuning Shen the creator of Siwaxili, online Chinese-Kiswahili dictionary says. “I wish that African leaders will also promote their own languages in the future.”
China's President Xi Jinping (L) shakes hands with Zimbabwe's President (R) Robert Mugabe while South Africa's President Jacob Zuma looks on during a Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Sandton, Johannesburg, December 4, 2015.
Image: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko