Multilingual fluency essential for B&R success

By Cui Bowen Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/2 17:38:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The One Belt and One Road (B&R) initiative envisioned by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 serves as China's blueprint for economic globalization and cultural exchange and aims to build a closer community of common destiny with countries and regions along the route through connectivity in policy, trade and investment, infrastructure and civil support. The B&R forum scheduled to be held on May 14 and 15 will create a platform for the participants to discuss how to comprehensively promote the initiative and deepen cooperation among nations and international organizations.

I have read some media reports and commentaries about how the B&R initiative has reaped its early harvest in aiding connectivity, enhancing infrastructure construction and boosting economic development in the region. But there are few mentioning the importance of language proficiency in the progression of the initiative. In fact, the goals of the initiative cannot be fully achieved without high-level competence in foreign languages.

As a master's student in translation studies at Beijing Language and Culture University, which has the largest number of foreign students in China, I truly understand the importance of knowing the language and culture in building relations among different countries. Understanding each other's language and culture will forge close ties among nations, while scant knowledge in either area will create obstacles or even widen rifts.

The scarcity of English language proficiency will bring out challenges for Chinese companies that are going global. As a lingua franca, English is of pivotal importance to advance cross-border trade and financing, and infrastructure building. It is said that most of the projects in the B&R initiative that Chinese enterprises invest or participate in are large-scale infrastructure programs. Generally speaking, a large-scale overseas infrastructure project requires frequent communication and negotiations. However, language barriers have become a conundrum for Chinese companies expanding their businesses overseas. They often encounter a dilemma: on the one hand, many Chinese experts with professional knowledge are not proficient in English; on the other hand, some Chinese translators and interpreters speak fluent English, but lack professional knowledge. When promoting overseas infrastructure programs against foreign competitors, Chinese companies are often at a disadvantage.

Take China's bullet trains going overseas as an example. Although China Railway High-Speed (CRH) has made remarkable achievements in both technology and service, its English translation of technical and business texts is far from internationally standardized and lags behind foreign counterparts in terms of the quality of those texts. The China South Locomotive & Rolling Stock Corporation Limited spent over two years preparing a bid for the high-speed train project in northern Europe but ended up failing in late 2012 because of its translation mistakes.

Apart from scant English capability, inadequate knowledge about diverse languages used in the B&R region is another bump on the road. According to Language Situations in the Countries along the Belt and Road, published in 2015, there are 64 countries along the route and the number of languages spoken in these countries totals about 60. Being fluent in English and other international languages is far from enough. Inability to communicate with the local people in their preferred native languages often casts a shadow over the implementation of some large infrastructure projects.

In addition, mastering the language does not necessarily lead to a good understanding of the culture or the region where that language is used. Since the people-to-people exchange involved in the B&R initiative requires mutual understanding of native language and culture, a lack of cultural exchange and cooperation puts a damper on mutual trust and emotional bonds between China and its neighboring countries. A failure to understand indigenous cultures will ignite cultural conflicts or even exacerbate diplomatic relations, posing obstacles for the ongoing development of the initiative.

Against this backdrop, more efforts should be made to expand the talent pool for high-level foreign language proficiency to advance the B&R initiative. To be more specific, more people should be trained in both international languages like English and local languages used in countries along the Belt and Road. But we need to determine which local languages are in urgent need, so that we do not cultivate a surplus of minority language professionals. Then, language training and cultural learning should be given equal emphasis.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the B&R initiative does not have geographic boundaries and strives for international cooperation. Such goals can be achieved through foreign language capability. In the short term, it serves as a precondition for the smooth development of the initiative. In the long run, it will help safeguard China's national interests and boost its national image. Thus, the study of languages and culture must be prioritized to put the B&R initiative in full swing.

The author is a postgraduate student in translation studies at Beijing Language and Culture University.

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