In­sti­tutes take Chi­nese lan­guage to a global au­di­ence

China Daily (USA) - - ANALYSIS - By ANTHONY WARREN

The open­ing lines of The Analects, one of China’s most fa­mous his­toric texts, reads: “Is it not a plea­sure to study and prac­tice what you learn? Is it not good when friends visit from far off places?”

More than 2,000 years af­ter it was writ­ten, the apho­risms of its au­thor, the Chi­nese sage Con­fu­cius, might well be talk­ing about China’s rising lan­guage cen­ters.

Af­ter a mere 12 years, China’s Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes are on 500 cam­puses and are now teach­ing Chi­nese lan­guage and cul­ture to al­most 2 mil­lion peo­ple.

At­tached to for­eign uni­ver­si­ties and named af­ter the epony­mous philoso­pher, the Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes, over­seen by the Of­fice of Chi­nese Lan­guage Coun­cil In­ter­na­tional, or Han­ban, are a net­work of not­for-profit Man­darin lan­guage-teach­ing schools and cul­tural cen­ters for those who seek to learn about China.

The first in­sti­tute opened its doors in Seoul in 2004. By the fol­low­ing year there were 33 in op­er­a­tion. As of to­day there are more than 500, spread across more than 134 coun­tries and re­gions and on ev­ery con­ti­nent ex­cept Antarc­tica.

Among the rea­sons for the in­sti­tutes’ cur­rent pop­u­lar­ity, said Chu Hung-lam, direc­tor of Hong Kong’s own Con­fu­cius In­sti­tute, is that China is gen­uinely in­ter­ested in get­ting peo­ple to learn first­hand about its unique. of­ten mis­un­der­stood, cul­ture.

“China wants to tell and show her­self and be un­der­stood,” ex­plained Chu, who is also head of the Chi­nese cul­ture de­part­ment at The Hong Kong Polytech­nic Univer­sity.

“That is a sim­ple wish that many other peo­ples will share — and it makes good sense.”

China is not alone when it comes to ex­pand­ing cul­tural soft power. For years, coun­tries have used their cul­tural ca­chet as a way to push a na­tional tongue as a sec­ond lan­guage.

Among such re­spected cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions are the likes of the Bri­tish Coun­cil, The Ja­pan Foun­da­tion, Ger­many’s GoetheIn­sti­tut and France’s Al­liance Fran­caise.

The suc­cess of the Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes did not hap­pen overnight. Ju­lia Gong, se­nior as­so­ciate direc­tor of the Con­fu­cius In­sti­tute at The Univer­sity of Mel­bourne, re­called that she only had four stu­dents when she started her first class in 2007. To­day the in­sti­tute is run­ning at least three classes ev­ery week­day and has en­rolled 976 stu­dents this year.

Gong said that the Mel­bourne in­sti­tute is in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar among Chi­nese-lan­guage learn­ers. As well as of­fer­ing non-credit Chi­nese cour­ses to the gen­eral pub­lic, the in­sti­tute also pro­vides tai­lored lan­guage classes to a range of would-be Man­darin speak­ers, in­clud­ing un­der­grad­u­ates and univer­sity staff, busi­ness­peo­ple and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials.

“With the in­crease in com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween Aus­tralia and China, in par­tic­u­lar with the sign­ing of the Free Trade Agree­ment be­tween the two coun­tries (in 2015), there has been more in­ter­est in learn­ing Man­darin,” Gong said.

With more Chi­nese trav­el­ers go­ing to Aus­tralia, de­mand for lan­guage lessons in the tourism in­dus­try has grown too. Dur­ing Chi­nese New Year, the Mel­bourne in­sti­tute even held cour­ses about the hol­i­day to ed­u­cate shop staff and tourism work­ers.

The China economy is driv­ing global in­ter­est in Man­darin, plac­ing the Con­fu­cius In­sti­tute net­work in an en­vi­able po­si­tion. Thanks to China’s eco­nomic clout and ex­pand­ing diplo­matic links with the more than 60 coun­tries in­cluded in the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive, there is lit­tle work needed to pro­mote the lan­guage.

Pro­posed by Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping in 2013, the ini­tia­tive seeks to cre­ate a mod­ern trade and in­fra­struc­ture net­work across the an­cient Silk Road routes.

Xu Tao, direc­tor of in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion and ex­changes at the min­istry of ed­u­ca­tion, said dur­ing an in­ter­view with on­line news site China.cn in Au­gust: “We help peo­ple in coun­tries along the Belt and Road learn Chi­nese, and these coun­tries help us learn their lan­guages.”

In­sti­tutes in coun­tries in­clud­ing Cam­bo­dia, Pak­istan and Bangladesh have shown par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in blend­ing lan­guage skills with fu­ture Belt and Road projects. For in­stance, one in­sti­tute in Thai­land, a coun­try with 15 Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes, has al­ready be­gun teach­ing lan­guage classes re­lated to rail­ways ahead of plans to build a Thai-Chi­nese rail­way.

How­ever, the re­al­ity is that the ma­jor­ity of Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes are cur­rently lo­cated in only a hand­ful of coun­tries. Over 100, for in­stance, are in the US, with more than two dozen in the United King­dom — both coun­tries with a long his­tory of aca­demic study of Chi­nese lan­guage and cul­ture.

It is un­likely that China’s eco­nomic power, on its own, can main­tain a deep, wide­spread in­ter­est in learn­ing a sec­ond lan­guage, said Molly Huang, who teaches Man­darin in South China’s Guang­dong prov­ince and Hong Kong. In­stead, she said that first and fore­most, lan­guage is en­twined with cul­ture.

Gong of Mel­bourne’s Con­fu­cius In­sti­tute agrees, stress­ing that the teach­ing of lan­guage and cul­ture can­not be sep­a­rated. “Cul­ture is a very big con­cept,” she said.

The Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes’ grow­ing in­flu­ence at for­eign uni­ver­si­ties has not been with­out con­tro­versy, how­ever. They have been ac­cused of be­ing opaque, too po­lit­i­cal, or some­times even not po­lit­i­cal enough.

“Since they bring fund­ing, trained teach­ers, or­ga­nized pro­grams, and text­books, (Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes) have been wel­comed with open arms by some univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tors,” said Robert Bauer, an hon­orary pro­fes­sor of Chi­nese lin­guis­tics at the Univer­sity of Hong Kong.

“At the same time, how­ever, I am aware that awk­ward sit­u­a­tions have arisen over po­lit­i­cal is­sues at some schools, and their Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes were asked to close and leave.”

In­deed, some Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes have suf­fered such a fate in coun­tries in­clud­ing Canada, Swe­den and the US.

In other cases, the in­sti­tutes sim­ply have not got off the ground. In Ja­pan, none of the elite pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties have agreed to al­low a Con­fu­cius In­sti­tute on cam­pus, though al­most a dozen pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties have done so.

De­spite these hic­cups, Han­ban has a clear plan for its in­sti­tutes. By 2020, it aims to have more than 1,000 open world­wide.

From left: Chu Hung-lam, direc­tor, Con­fu­cius In­sti­tute in Hong Kong; Ju­lia Gong, se­nior as­so­ciate direc­tor, Con­fu­cius In­sti­tute of Mel­bourne; Robert Bauer, hon­orary pro­fes­sor of Chi­nese lin­guis­tics, Univer­sity of Hong Kong.

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