Confucius Institutes expanding rapidly to meet demand for Chinese language skills

With China’s swift rise to prominence on the global stage, the demand for Mandarin language courses and qualified teachers is growing in just about every corner of the world.

At the recent International Conference on Language held in Suzhou City, 400 academics and cultural officials from more than 100 countries gathered to discuss Chinese language education and the path forward for Chinese teaching globally. The conference was organised by China’s Ministry of Education in partnership with UNESCO.

Liu Jun from Georgia State University, a delegate at the conference, described how the rise in popularity of Mandarin courses is a welcome development: “Other countries need the Chinese language to avoid misunderstanding and do business.”

According to a recent report from the Xinhua News Agency, there are currently “more than 100 million foreign speakers and learners of Mandarin worldwide with 350,000 foreigners studying Chinese language in 746 Chinese universities last year.”

Yet despite the increase in students studying Chinese, the language is still considered difficult to learn and teaching methods need improvement, according to researchers at the conference.

The role of Confucius Institutes

Enter the Confucius Institutes, a network of non-profit public institutions affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education. Confucius Institutes are designed to support the growth of Chinese language and culture worldwide, as well as the training of Chinese teachers. They are administered by the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language (or Hanban), a non-government agency reporting directly to the Ministry.

The first Confucius Institute opened in 2004. By mid-2013, over 300 Confucius Institutes had been established in 93 countries and regions, and the network is expanding rapidly toward a reported goal of 1,000 centres by 2020.

In the United Kingdom, for example, a new Confucius Institute will be set up next year with the express goal of increasing the UK’s supply of qualified Mandarin teachers to 1,200 by 2019. A recent BBC report notes that, currently, only about 30 specialist teachers qualify to provide Mandarin instruction in the UK each year, and only 1% of the UK’s adult population speaks the language fluently.

British Education Minister Elizabeth Truss believes this needs to change:

“China’s growing economy brings huge business opportunities for Britain, and it is vital that more of our young people can speak Mandarin to be able to trade in a global market and to develop successful companies.”

For John Worne, director of strategy at the British Council, the announcement is excellent news. “Growth in the number of students learning Chinese over the past few years has been sluggish at best,” he told the BBC, “despite it being one of the most important languages for the UK’s future on the world’s stage, according to our own British Council research.”

The announcement of the UK’s new Confucius Institute comes after employers in the country told the Confederation of British Industry that Mandarin was second only to French as the language they most wanted to see in future employees.

Across the United States meanwhile, 100 Confucius Institutes and more than 360 Confucius classrooms are operating today, providing Chinese language instruction to as many as 220,000 American students in 2014.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a fluent Mandarin speaker, recently addressed the three-day 2014 National Chinese Language Conference in Los Angeles. The conference is the largest annual American gathering of teachers, administrators, and policymakers engaged in teaching Chinese language and culture.

Mr Rudd echoed the thoughts of many proponents when he honoured delegates for their role in promoting greater cooperation and understanding between China and the rest of the world. Addressing teachers of the Chinese language in America directly, Mr Rudd offered thanks for their work in training a new generation of Mandarin speakers, who will have the tools and facility to engage more closely with China.

Not without controversy

The growth of the Confucius network has not been without controversy. Concerns have been raised in some quarters about academic freedom and the right to free speech.

Recently, for example, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a statement, with specific reference to the Confucius Institutes, which determined that “allowing any third-party control of academic matters is inconsistent with principles of academic freedom, shared governance, and the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities.” The AAUP’s concerns appear to rise from the fact that many Confucius Institutes are located on university or college campuses.

“Confucius Institutes appear designed to emulate the cultural ambassadorship and programming associated with, for example, the British Council, the Goethe Institut, and L’Alliance Franςaise,” notes the AAUP. “These latter three entities are clearly connected to imperial pasts, ongoing geopolitical agendas, and the objectives of ‘soft power,’ but none of them is located on a university or college campus. Instead, their connections to national political agendas and interests require that they be established in sites where they can fulfill their mandates openly without threatening the independence and integrity of academic institutions in host countries.”

Following the release of the statement, noted China scholars and observers from around the world joined the debate. Many academics have since spoken out in favour of the important role the Institutes have played in educating Americans about China and the Chinese language.

Robert Kapp, a key architect of recent China-US relations and former president of the US-China Business Council, argues that the establishment of Confucius Institutes in the United States affords opportunities to US students who would otherwise not be exposed to the language, history and culture of China.

“Lest we forget, China has a gigantic, marvelous cultural repertoire, worthy of world interest and respect,” said Mr Kapp. “On its face, I would argue that expansion of Chinese language instruction in America is a good thing, and that it should be welcomed. If a school can’t do it alone, the language-instruction resources made available by a [Confucius Institute] should be utilised, assuming that the instructors are competent to teach American students and willing to adhere to a set of commitments to ethically responsible classroom behaviour.

These requirements should include a stated commitment to tolerate diverse viewpoints, and a signed commitment not to use any academic threats or pressures against those of divergent political or ethical opinions.

Such clear affirmations of academic freedom should be specified in each school’s agreement with Hanban, the Chinese agency sponsoring Confucius Institutes. If Hanban cannot accept such stipulations, then there should be no agreement. The responsibility for determining that these commitments are being upheld should reside solely in the hands of the host institution.”

Not just a Western phenomenon

Growth of Mandarin language programmes and deeper bilateral educational exchange has in no way been limited to major destination markets.

In Hungary, the Central and Eastern Europe Chinese Language Teachers Training Centre began its first training course at the Confucius Institute of Eotvos Lorand University (ELTE) in Budapest last month. Dozens of local Chinese language teachers from eleven Central and Eastern European countries came to attend the training.

In Africa, China runs one of the world’s largest short-term training programmes. The “African Talents Program”, announced in 2012, aims to train 30,000 African professionals in China between 2013 and 2015, and 18,000 African trainees will benefit from full scholarships to study at Chinese universities under the scheme.

China also operates 38 Confucius Institutes at many of Africa’s top universities, stretching from Cape Town to Cairo.

Such a deepening of relations is seen as a ‘win-win’ situation and yet one more example of concrete South-South exchange. For Lu Shaye, director-general of African Affairs at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, these partnerships are also an example of the “soft power” at the heart of China’s diplomacy with the African continent and a means to strengthen cultural exchanges between China and Africa.

In Pakistan, meanwhile, the Pakistan-China Institute in Islamabad, in collaboration with the University of Karachi’s Latif Ebrahim Jamal National Science Information Centre (LEJ), announced earlier this year that they will be launching a course on “Basic Chinese Language” in all public universities across Pakistan. The course will be delivered via video conferencing and has been designed to help undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate students across Pakistan develop their Chinese language skills.

For more on the spread of Mandarin around the world, please see our previous article entitled “China paves the way for new Confucius Institutes in India, global demand rising.”



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