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March 2, 2022

The dynamics of learning Chinese in Nigeria and South Africa

By Philip Ademola Olayoku (Coordinator, West African Transitional Justice Centre) (WATJCentre)

Note: This content is produced by an independent researcher and does not represent the views of the Africa-China Reporting Project or the Wits Centre for Journalism.

Introduction: The power dynamics of language as a capital

The politics of language is central to the discourse on bilingualism (speaking two languages) and multilingualism (proficiency in more than two languages). Debates on these two issues revolve around the possible effects of language accumulation as they relate to the influence of nations regarding international politics and economy, and how language competence affect the relations among nations. There are two diverging positions in these regards. On the one hand, one can end up as bilingual or multilingual. This is referred to as additive bilingualism. On the other hand, one can become monolingual in what is referred to as subtractive bilingualism. Further, these positions generate discussions around the adoption of the right methodology for language teaching and learning. This leads to differences in viewpoints among scholars and policy makers about the adoption and use of foreign languages particularly in relation to the vestiges of colonialism.

In Africa, for instance, advocacy has been directed towards replacing colonial languages with indigenous ones. More specifically, the protection and promotion of indigenous languages have become important components of the pursuit of decolonization within post-colonies. The argument is that the use of indigenous languages as mediums of teaching and learning, at least at the basic levels of educational systems, would protect them from extinction. There have also been arguments for the sustenance of indigenous languages beyond geographies of origin to diaspora communities, with the position that first or indigenous languages be included as the medium of teaching during language programs designed for immersion.

From the foregoing, the operational context of the introduction of foreign languages into African communities presents a pertinent point of discussion. As it stands, the insertion of foreign languages into Africa’s post-colonial societies has had little consideration in relation to the political will for the development of first or indigenous languages. One of the foreign languages whose introduction into Africa has drawn intense debates in recent times is the Chinese language. The introduction of Chinese as a language of transaction has followed the rise of China as a major economic and development power globally. Thus, it is important to manage emerging tensions surrounding the gradual introduction of Chinese as a language of transaction in Africa. The case of introduction of the Chinese language in Nigeria and South Africa provides interesting contexts to examining different approaches to the adoption and use of foreign languages.

Language diplomacy as a driver of China’s foreign policy in Nigeria and South Africa

Language remains an integral component of people-to-people exchanges in realizing China’s foreign policy goal towards achieving “a community of shared future”. Language education has, thus, become an important means for building partnerships with local institutions across the globe, especially through Confucius Institutes (CIs) and Chinese language centres as prototypes of cultural centres abroad. Since the creation of the first CI in Seoul in 2004, the number of CIs have expanded to about 541 located in about 164 countries, 61 of which are based in Africa as of February 2021. A constitution and by-laws guide the setting-up and operations of these centres, and part of the stipulations is that their operations be guided by both the laws of China and host countries. The expansion of these centres has continued to generate reactions with allegations of China’s attempt at cultural imperialism globally, Africa included.

The charges have included supposed overbearing influence of the Chinese government on the operations of these centres thereby making them Beijing’s propaganda tools. Other suspicions revolve around the fact that the CIs are coordinated under the Chinese Ministry of Education by the Centre for Language Education and Cooperation (CLEC) – formerly known as Hanban. CLEC is responsible for providing teachers and textbooks for running the operations of the centres, in addition to the resources being supplied by the local partner institutions. However, the centres have continued to lay claims to their operational independence by emphasizing that CLEC draws its funds from the Chinese International Educational Foundation made up of 27 independent universities and corporations.

To make sense of the complexities of teaching Chinese language in South Africa and Nigeria, two of the African countries where the politics of language debates have been prominent, we have to explore the state of language policies and practices in both countries.  In South Africa, there has been the adoption of 11 official languages namely Afrikaans, Northern Sotho, Sotho, English, Ndebele, Swazi, Zulu, Venda, Xhosa, Tsonga, and Tswana. This has helped give primacy to the learning of indigenous languages within a polity where several foreign languages are widely spoken. These languages include Hindi, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hebrew, Portuguese, Korean and Dutch. Nigeria on the other hand still employs the use of a colonial language – English – as the official language in line with a national language policy. English is thus the official language used in the media and as a medium of public expression.

In terms of language policies, it is evident that South Africa is comparatively more proactive than Nigeria. In South Africa, the language policy stipulates that a child has the right to acquire any of the region-based languages of choice. Similarly, South Africa encourages the use of mother tongues as mediums of teaching and learning in schools, where practicable. Nigeria on the other hand, is yet to advance beyond the linguistic structures of colonialism to accommodate regional specificities in terms of its sensitivity to language acquisition. This is reflected in the predominance of the three languages, Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa within the educational system, despite arguments for the incorporation of other languages. Suffice to state that there have been some attempts at managing the acquisition of a formal language through the development of a syntactic corpus of the Nigerian version of Creole popularly referred to as Pidgin English through the Naija Syncor project at the Institut Francaise de Recherche en Afrique, based at the University of Ibadan. However, this attempt only reinforces the fear of neo-colonism and threats to indigenous languages.

Learning Chinese in Nigeria and South Africa

With this divergence of approaches to defining language policies, the contexts of Nigeria and South Africa present an interesting dynamic in terms of the acquisition of Chinese language as a form of economic capital. While these two countries remain major economic forces on the continent, the ethnic composition of both countries are characterized by two different modes. While South Africa has a more global outlook of predominant ethnic groups that could trace their historical origins to different parts of the world including China, Britain, India, and the Netherlands among others, Nigeria is predominantly populated by indigenous groups that trace their origins majorly from within groups that speak the Niger-Congo languages. Despite these differences, the prospects of acquiring Chinese as an economic capital has continued to generate interest in the language among different classes of people within both countries. With improving terms of bilateral relations, administrative capitals have been the hubs of Chinese language and cultural exchanges targeted at improving diplomatic and business relations.  Such is the legitimacy that the language program has garnered that it has now penetrated peri-urban communities. In South Africa, Cape Town doubles as the country’s legislative capital and the capital of the Western Cape; while Abuja has remained Nigeria’s administrative capital since it was moved from Lagos in December 1991. It is little wonder then that each of these two administrative cities play host to Confucius Institutes and the Chinese Cultural Centres which have been institutions driving the learning of Chinese language.

The CI at the University of Cape Town (CIUCT) was created in 2010 in partnership with Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou. It is responsible for coordinating the honors programme in Chinese Language and Literature at the School of Languages and Literature at the university. At inception, the inaugural director of the institute, Professor Wu Qianlong, commented on the challenges of teaching Chinese within a South African multilingual context by stating that students who were more proficient at English were better at assimilating the language than those who were better at indigenous languages. He therefore proposed the need for the Chinese teachers to learn other indigenous languages to be able to relate with non-English speaking students.

This became specifically relevant as the institute began sending Chinese language teachers to primary and secondary schools. At inception, the program conducted 6-week training classes for adults planning short trips to China on the basics of the Chinese language, but has since evolved into 6 modules taught for three sessions within the Chinese Language and Literature programme. The course also presents an option of travel to China during the second semester of the third year for students to be embedded into the culture. Apart from the honors programme, the centre also coordinates the teaching of the basics of Chinese language and culture to professionals.

In Nigeria, the Chinese Cultural Centre (CCC) in Abuja was created in 2019 as the first in Africa South of the Sahara as part of the 2012 Agreement on Mutual Establishment of Cultural Centres between Nigeria and China. The centre coordinates educational exchange programmes for Nigerian students traveling to China and is headed by the Cultural Counsellor at the Chinese Embassy. The centre also plays hosts to several cultural activities including teaching of Chinese, art exhibitions, martial arts, training in Chinese calligraphy, sculpture and cuisine, fashion shows, food fairs as well as general events on China/Nigeria relations including book presentations. It also facilitates the teaching of Chinese language to high schools in the Federal Capital City by supplying teachers and textbooks in addition to enrolling professional students for its two streams of classes (basic and regular). There are also other initiatives such as the Chinese School Abuja which was established in January 2020 to incorporate the teaching of Chinese culture and language at the basic levels of education from kindergarten through primary through the “Chinese corner”. Both the CIUCT in Cape Town and CCC in Abuja prepare students for taking the different levels of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) – Chinese Proficiency Tests – which is administered by the Chinese Test Centre in Beijing.

Both Cape Town and Abuja also have centres for informal learning through Chinese cultural exchanges. Cape Town, for instance, boasts the Huang Laoshi Mandarin Centre, the Ka Pa Tee, the Acupuncture Clinic and the Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre where various activities involving language education through cultural exchanges are carried out. These activities include serve Chinese cuisine and teas, as well as offering exposure to traditional medicine and martial arts. Similarly, Abuja has the Mandarin House and the Chinese Cultural Centre alongside several Chinese restaurants including the Silk Road, Sinoni, and Woks and Koi where aspects of Chinese language and culture are taught through formal classes, art exhibitions and serving of Chinese tea and cuisine.

Conclusion: Stemming the tide through multilingual language centres

The activities of these two centres indicate the penetration of Chinese language into both countries at a rapid scale of engagement with different generations simultaneously from kindergarten through to tertiary institutions. Professionals and traders have also enrolled to acquire competence at different levels through specialized classes. As such, rather than the agitations on China’s cultural imperialistic agenda abating, the perceived threats to the survival of indigenous languages remain. For one, there is no denying that the number of those interested in learning Chinese in these two countries will continue to increase as China consolidates it diplomatic and economic ties with these two countries.  The emphasis on bilateralism in these relations has also led to the use of Chinese orthography in documenting signed agreements and the use of Chinese currency for transactions to delimit Western influence. With recent projections by the Centre for Economics and Business Research in the UK that China would become the world’s biggest economy after overtaking the US in 2028, it would amount to economic suicide to advance anti-China policies such as countering the teaching of Chinese language and culture. More so, with China as one of the highest official lenders on the continent, it could also have negative implications for funding to implement development projects that benefit from Chinese funds.

A more progressive approach would be the creation and implementation of policies on intentional development of indigenous languages alongside the learning of Chinese as has been advocated by different scholars. Such endeavors would entail encouraging writing in indigenous languages to boost literary publications and the creation of language laboratories designed to help children improve their proficiency in indigenous languages. It is also important to encourage the engagement of locals in the teaching of Chinese, especially to children at the basic level of education. The importance of this is the ability of such teachers to empathize with the learners and help them develop their multilingualism, due to their familiarity with local contexts.

Apart from being able to help the learners draw from their repertoire of languages within the classroom experience, they are also able to guide the practice of the Chinese language outside of the formal learning environment. This is important in creating a collaborative learning experience, in which the agency of the students contributes as much to the classroom experience as that of the teacher. More importantly, the governments of Nigeria and South Africa – and by extension other African countries – should have the political will to invest in multilingual schools dedicated to the teaching of languages with equal focus on regional indigenous languages. This would enable a holistic learning experience with products that are rooted in their culture and well-equipped to compete in the global market. As such, while cultural preservation is driven by the intergenerational transmission of language, national development, within the context of globalization, is largely dependent on the ability to build effective diplomatic relations with foreign partners, as underscored by transcultural exchanges. The balance between both is what makes development sustainable.

Philip Ademola Olayoku holds a doctorate in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Ibadan where he taught as an adjunct. He is the coordinator of the West African Transitional Justice Centre (WATJCentre) and Senior Research Fellow of the Institut Francais de Recherche en Afrique (IFRA-Nigeria). He currently consults on the Media and Terrorism project for the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) and serves on the international advisory board of Medecins Sans Frontieres for developing modules on their Speaking Out Case Studies. Hitherto, he worked at the Kukah Centre as the Research and Programme Coordinator where he managed technical support for the National Peace Committee during the 2019 elections. He was a 2017 African Studies Association (ASAUS) Presidential Fellow and a 2015 Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation’s Young African Scholar. His research interests include transitional justice, democratic governance, security studies, ethnicity, digital power dynamics and transnational relations. He has several policy and research publications in journals such as the African Security Review, African Journal on Conflict Resolution and the African Solutions Journal. He also volunteers as an editor for H-Peace at HNet Humanities and Social Sciences Online.


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