Chinese should be taught in African schools

By Mark Kapchanga Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/30 20:32:53

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

One of the toughest challenges the Chinese face as they push for investment in African countries has been the cultural barrier, especially coping with language challenges.

The gaps in communication as a result of Africans and the Chinese not sharing a common language have led to miscommunication, which in some cases has resulted in misunderstandings. In some countries, these misunderstandings have caused Chinese companies to lose investment opportunities.

While some languages are global, and therefore shared with the Chinese, like English, others have proved difficult. Portuguese, for instance, is not spoken widely by the Chinese. Portuguese is spoken in Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, São Tomé and Príncipe and Equatorial Guinea.

In fact, a recent study by the National Institute of Statistics (Mozambique) noted that the Portuguese language, though spoken widely by more than half the population of 25 million, was deterring investment in the country as businessmen struggle to grasp the language.

Having noticed the role a language plays in a country's welfare, Rwanda, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, discarded French as its official language, and replaced it with English, a language that is spoken in about 90 percent of African countries. Though underpinning the shift is the deep and bitter dispute with France's support for the Hutu regime that oversaw the 1994 genocide, Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president, observed that the switch is part of a wholesale realignment to attract international investors and position the country's economy on the right footing. He said English would also reposition Rwanda as a member of the East African Community, a trade bloc made up mostly of English-speaking countries such as neighbors Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

Faced with language problems in African countries since their arrival almost a decade ago, the Chinese are also fast learning local languages such as Swahili, which is widely spoken in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Mozambique and Uganda.

The strong desire that has seen many Chinese enroll in colleges and universities to study local African languages is as a result of the perpetual communication breakdown between Chinese investors and local people, which has resulted in misunderstandings. This has been the root cause of unfounded remarks, particularly in rural areas in Africa, that the Chinese are in Africa to steal their resources and exploit Africa's human resources.

Efforts by Chinese to learn about and adopt African countries' different cultures will significantly close the gap between them and local people, boost the working relationship and kill the misunderstandings that have existed between the two for ages. There is little doubt that when Chinese Africanize themselves, they will increase their bargaining power with local people, in addition to beating emerging cutthroat competition for opportunities, especially from Japanese and Indian businessmen who have in the recent past shown huge appetite for investment and trade with African countries. Importantly, a common language will see Chinese successfully integrate with Africans.

Besides local institutions in different African countries teaching the Chinese people local languages, Beijing-based Communication University of China is playing a pivotal role in preparing young Chinese as they look to venture to and explore Africa. The university has taught Swahili for decades. Most of its students have ventured out of China to Africa, particularly in East African countries where they help in the running of Chinese businesses.

By adopting African dialects, and even intermarrying with local people, China is not only gaining support in the continent but also breaking the cultural barriers that had defeated its Asian counterparts, particularly the Indians and the Japanese.

The biggest challenge ahead now is for the Chinese to take a step and start teaching Africans their language. Today, most Africans speak Western languages such as French, German and English, thanks to the colonialists. It is time, too, for the Chinese language to be inculcated in African countries' education system.

It is already being done through Confucius Institutes, but the scale is not large enough for the millions of Africans who yearn to learn the "strange" language. More institutions need to be set up, or collaborations with colleges established, so that the Chinese language can be taught as early as when students are at the primary level.

Surely, as Nelson Mandela once 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." Over to you, China and Africa.

The author is a researcher and expert on China-Africa cooperation based in Nairobi, Kenya. Follow him on Twitter:@kapchanga. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion

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