Africa

China Seeks to Build Partnerships in Africa Through Language

Erin Dunne

Rabat - As China develops its soft power around the world, language learning has become a centerpiece of its strategy.

This past weekend, the 2017 Joint Conference of Confucius Institutes in Africa was hosted by the Confucius Institute at the University of Zambia with the goal to “exchange experiences to enhance cooperation and promote the development of Confucius Institutes of Africa” according to the university’s events calendar.

The Institute at the University of Zambia is part of a network of similar organizations around the world including three in Morocco. These Confucius Institutes are Chinese government backed institutions associated with the Chinese Ministry of Education that offer courses in Chinese language as well as cultural programing. These institutes, located around the world, partner with local affiliate colleges and universities and, in addition to teaching, develop educational materials and facilitate cultural exchange.

The spread of Confucius Institutes across Africa, however, is only half of China’s language strategy. In addition to promoting Chinese language learning, China is also encouraging its own citizens to learn the native languages of those countries that is has diplomatic relations with – even when there are few native speakers.

This year, China’s prestigious Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) adds seven more African language programs to their existing course offerings. These languages include Amharic, (Ethiopia), Tigrigna (Ethiopia and Eritrea), Afrikaans and Zulu (South Africa), Malagasy (Madagascar), Somali (Somalia) and Comorian (the Comoros Islands).

Sun Xiaomeng the Dean of the School of Asian and African Studies and BFSU explained the addition of the new programs to the Beijing Review, an English-language news source published by the Chinese Government: “If you interact with Africans only through English, French and other foreign languages imposed by colonizers, you perpetuate hegemony.” She added, “by learning the indigenous African languages, we fill the gap between engagement and understanding, and at the same time, help Africans preserve their heritage and retain their cultural values.”

In September, Chinese students of these languages will travel to Ethiopia, South Africa, Madagascar, Somalia and Comoros to continue developing proficiency and to “gain insights into the local cultures” with the goal of these students eventually being teachers and researchers in the new language departments according to the Beijing Review.

The increased interest in building relationships with Africa through language compliments the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative which were announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping. This ambitious soft power diplomacy initiative also known as “One Belt, One Road” has already brought new development to Africa including a railroad between Addis Ababa and Djibouti and another railway in Kenya connecting Nairobi and Mombasa.

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