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Zimbabwean linguist sees a major role for the Chinese language in Africa
By Bridget Hwasheni | VOL.10 October 2018  ·2018-10-17


Herbert Mushangwe on the judging panel of the 17th Chinese Bridge Chinese Proficiency Competition for Foreign College Students in Changsha, Hunan Province, on August 4 (FRANCISCO LITTLE)

The Belt and Road Initiative has played a big role in promoting more people to learn the Chinese language in Africa, leading to the establishment of more Confucius Institutes on the continent. Experts believe this allows many African governments to incorporate and expand Chinese language and culture training with educational exchange programs between China and Africa. Statistics reveal that to date, Africa has a total of 54 Confucius Institutes, the non-profit public educational organizations affiliated with China's Ministry of Education.

At the peak of this cultural wave of language learning, although Herbert Mushangwe, a distinguished Chinese speaker and teacher from Zimbabwe, was a product of his own trajectory before the Belt and Road Initiative was initiated in 2013, he has certainly benefited from its implementation. Born in 1981 into a family with deep Zimbabwean roots, Mushangwe grew up in the town of Masvingo, where he also attended and completed his primary and high school education. In 2007, he received a scholarship to pursue a master's degree program in China at Tianjin Normal University. The program required him to learn Chinese first, since it was going to be taught in that language.

"During the first term of my studies, I found the Chinese language and culture easy and fascinating. I was so excited to learn a new language; I never felt embarrassed to speak Chinese during my first days," he recalled. He said it was around this time that he was given the Chinese name Li Kaiming. "I was given this name because I refused the transliterated name Haibote (from Herbert). My Chinese teacher thought I was too open-minded, hence the name Kaiming," he told ChinAfrica.

The language of fate

Initially, Mushangwe didn't set out to be a Chinese professor. "In 2008 when I discovered that my school did not have the actual program that I wanted to study, I applied through the University of Zimbabwe to change my program to the Teaching of Chinese as a Second Language program," he explained.

Upon graduation from Tianjin Normal University In 2011, Mushangwe went back to the University of Zimbabwe to teach Chinese. One year later, he decided to pursue a Ph.D. program on the Chinese language at Hebei University in Baoding in north China's Hebei Province, which he completed. It was his enthusiasm and love of learning Chinese that ended up dictating the career path that brought him to rejoin the University of Zimbabwe where he currently teaches Chinese language courses. For Mushangwe, becoming a Chinese teacher is a validating experience and the saying "those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own (language)," rings particularly true for him.

He has produced books on learning the Chinese language in his country. "I've produced two critical books which are crucial to the teaching of the Chinese language in Zimbabwe. The first is a Shona-Chinese dictionary and the second one is an introduction to Chinese characters from a Zimbabwean perspective.''

Mushangwe's fascination with Chinese led him to pursue a career in the language, but it is his job that allows him to give back to his country. “For the nation of Zimbabwe, I participated in the development of the Chinese language curricula for primary and high schools. I also developed the new Chinese honors program for the University of Zimbabwe."

As a teacher in Zimbabwe, he is interested in contributing to the development of his country and wants to achieve this through language. He is dedicated to making the best of his time as a teacher. "I want the people of my country to be at the forefront of development. I believe that through teaching them the Chinese language, not only will it make Zimbabweans competitive in terms of exploring the Chinese market, but it will also increase the [financial] security of Zimbabwe," he said.

Broad vision

As a strong motivator for his students, Mushangwe described his vision for the Chinese language in Zimbabwe as one where every progressive school in the country will train businesspeople, engineers, lawmakers and experts in other fields who are proficient in Chinese.

That vision feeds into his thoughts on the Belt and Road Initiative. From a language perspective, Mushangwe said he thinks that the initiative has a role to play. "Learning the language ensures that there is no communication barrier. The language provides the necessary bridge to ensure that partners have better mutual understanding," he said.

He thinks that while each language has its own relevance, for Zimbabwe and Africa at large going forward, the Chinese language seems to be a good option to learn because of the range of opportunities the Chinese market, with more than 1.3 billion people, offers.

"The future is uncertain, but I would certainly say that English, French and Chinese will remain relevant for the next three or so decades and people ought to use these languages as much as possible. Within Africa [traditionally], I would predict Swahili as [being] one of the most relevant [languages] in future decades."

Mushangwe said he believes that it is necessary for training institutions in Africa to embrace, expand and improve their curricula in order to produce relevant skilled Chinese translators as well as educate more talents fluent in less commonly used languages in Africa.

"Chinese culture shapes Chinese people's behavior and how they do business. This makes it compulsory to have a strong background of the Chinese language," he said.

Big role to play

Chinese language service providers in Africa, like Mushangwe, may not have a collectively unified role as yet to play besides that of bridging people-to-people language barriers; nevertheless, Mushangwe certainly sees an important role for his peers in promoting Sino-Zimbabwean relations.

"Now being part of the Confucius Institute, we provide a platform to promote the Sino-Zimbabwean relationship through training language experts as well as organizing workshops and conferences related to Sino-Zimbabwean relations." This year, Mushangwe participated in the 17th Chinese Bridge Chinese Proficiency Competition for Foreign College Students as one of the panel judges. The language competition is China's premier contest for foreign students. Mushangwe said he hopes for more events like these in the future.

He highlighted that similar language capacity projects should be initiated under the Belt and Road Initiative as a way to cultivate more talent of less commonly used language speakers in order to promote the use of the Chinese language in African countries along the Belt and Road. Mushangwe said he believes that Chinese learning will empower Zimbabweans and other Africans with regards to language.

"As part of the Confucius Institute and as a language expert, I have the duty to provide a platform to promote the Sino-Zimbabwean relationship through training language experts as well as organizing workshops and conferences related to Sino-Zimbabwean relations," Mushangwe said.

"I encourage African governments to expand language training in Africa. Many developed countries teach the Chinese language mainly for business purposes, so I believe Africa should not be left out," he concluded.

(Comments to bridgethwasheni@chinafrica.cn)

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