The decision by the South African government to offer Mandarin as an optional language in schools next year has created furore among educationalists who have described the move as another form of Chinese imperialism. South Africa’s education department announced recently that it planned to introduce Mandarin in schools next year to pupils between Grades 4 and 12.
Zimbabwe and Kenya also have similar plans to introduce Mandarin in the education sector at primary and secondary levels to cater for increased commercial activities with China.
However, the Chinese language’s penetration into the Southern African region is facing stiff resistance from indigenous languages advocates who view the move as a betrayal by their governments of the need to preserve and promote local languages.
University of the Free State Vice Chancellor and rector Professor Jonathan Jansen said the planned introduction of Mandarin was nothing short of “political gat kruiping (brown nosing)”.
Addressing a group of leaders from four universities in the KwaZulu Natal province last week, Prof Jansen said it was pointless to introduce Mandarin when local languages were being neglected.
“I don’t see the need for introducing Mandarin when we can’t seem to teach English, Afrikaans and Zulu properly. Bringing Mandarin is political gat kruiping. We need a long-term plan to get out of this mess. We should be thinking like Singapore who look 20 years ahead. We only see tomorrow,” Prof Jansen.
China has been encouraging the teaching of Mandarin to African students through scholarships to study in China and at least 48 government-funded Confucius Institutes have been set up across the continent.
Analysts have questioned the planned introduction of Mandarin into schools saying the move will further relegate indigenous languages into the fringes of formal daily communication and they may eventually become extinct.
Indeed, language is an emotive issue in most Southern African countries, which all suffer from the ignominy of colonialism which forced inhabitants to adopt the mother country’s language as the official one.
At independence, most Southern African countries moved in to officially recognise all languages spoken within their borders. There are thus 16 official languages in Zimbabwe with English, Shona and Ndebele being widely spoken. Approximately 70 percent of the population is Shona speaking and speaks ChiShona as their first language, while 20 percent are Ndebele, who speak IsiNdebele as their first language.
Despite its huge geographic size, South Africa only has 11 official languages — Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.
One of the challenges that confront most Southern African countries in the promotion of indigenous languages is that most bodies mandated to do so are underfunded with 200 African languages across the continent being used in schools.
However, other educationalists feel that the introduction of Chinese in schools and at universities is an important step towards creating cultural, political and economic synergies with the world’s second largest economy and a fast-rising global power.
Faculty of Arts Dean at the University of Zimbabwe, Professor Pedzisayi Mashiri, who was the brains behind the introduction of the Confucius Institute at the university in 2007, called for the removal of a veil of pretentious outdated nationalistic fervour that fails to acknowledge China’s influential role in international affairs.
“Anyone saying this is another form of colonialism is not aware of the developments happening in the global village. We must be competitive as a nation.
“Chinese is not only the language spoken by a large population, but is also the language of the fastest growing economy and the second largest in the world. The irony of it all is that the largest number of Confucius Institutes is found in Europe, Asia and the United States,” said Prof Mashiri.
He said it was important to note that out of a total of 500 Confucius Institutes worldwide, Africa only has 48, with the biggest China Town found in San Francisco, US. He said the US and many countries in Europe had policies that ensure that their children were taught Chinese at kindergarten.
The establishment of the Confucius Institute at the University of Zimbabwe, he said, was in response to the Government’s adoption of the Look East Policy and since then institute has twice won awards for the best institute in Africa.
He said 300 students had so far graduated with 7 students having gone to China to train as lecturers. The institution currently boasts one lecturer with a PHD in Chinese while the rest hold Masters Degrees.
In the absence of Government policy on Mandarin’s introduction in schools, the Confucius Institute at the University of Zimbabwe has introduced the language at various primary and secondary schools in Harare as well as Chinese Clubs.
Prof Mashiri says Zimbabwe is way ahead in Africa in terms of capacity building and the level of proficiency in Mandarin.
Away from the sentimental persuasions on the need to promote indigenous languages, it cannot be in dispute that learning Chinese has many advantages given the facts that one fifth of the planet speaks Chinese and that Mandarin is the mother tongue of over 873 million people, making it the most widely spoken first language in the world.
In addition to the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, mandarin Chinese is also spoken in the important and influential Chinese communities of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines and Mongolia.
China is one of the largest trading partners of the US and it logically stands to reason why many companies with long-term investments there encourage their citizens to learn the language.
African governments which have made decisions to introduce Chinese in their curricula are thus informed by a realisation that the study of Mandarin opens the way to different important fields such as Chinese politics, economy, history or archaeology.
Analysts say the study of Chinese language will bridge the cultural gap, create better understanding and offer a platform of a whole range of knowledge which is crucial for effective communication.
Malaysian-based Zimbabwean academic Dr Knox Zengeni says international businesses prefer to hire people who are able to speak more than one language. He contends that since China offers a huge market, business leaders prefer people who can speak Chinese and operate successfully in a Chinese cultural context.
“Knowing Chinese gives one an edge when competing for an important position. China will play a major role in world affairs in the future. The fact that China has opened up to the West offers various opportunities for employment in all areas,” said Dr Zengeni.
Dr Zengeni said Mandarin had a better chance of widespread penetration in Africa because of its uncomplicated grammar. The Chinese language, he said, has no verb conjugation (no need to memorise verb tenses) and has no noun declension.
The basic order of Chinese is subject-verb-object, just as in English.