When Sun Xiaomeng left the city of Zaria in north Nigeria after doing her Master’s in the famed Ahmed Bello University, she went to say an emotional goodbye to an unusual group of acquaintances - the Hausa vendors at the local marketplace where she used to go regularly during her two-year stay to buy her daily groceries.
"It was a moving experience," said the 38-year-old who is now the dean of the School of Asian and African Studies at the prestigious Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) in the Chinese capital. "When I went to Nigeria in 2003, I was the only Chinese in the city and a novelty to the people in the market. When they heard me speaking in Hausa, their native language, they were astounded. ‘Where did you learn it? How do you speak it so fluently?’ they kept on asking me, and step by step, our friendship grew."
Sun had begun to learn Hausa in 1996 when she joined the same university where she is a professor today, majoring in the language that is the lingua franca of West Africa. Besides being spoken by the majority in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, Hausa is also spoken in countries such as Niger, Sudan, Chad, Ghana and Togo. Her university had guided her to the course and after she majored in Hausa, she went to Nigeria on a China Scholarship Council scholarship to improve her language skills as well as soak up West African culture.
Subsequently, she researched under Professor Li Anshan, a leading African studies scholar, and obtained a doctorate from St. Anthony’s College, Oxford. Today, she is directing new Chinese students toward other indigenous African languages and literature.
Language for equality
A huge language-learning program is underway in China, dovetailing with the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative announced by President Xi Jinping for the common development and prosperity of Asia, Africa and Europe. "For the initiative to go smoothly, it is more important to deepen mutual understanding among these countries than just focus on an economic boom," Sun said. "Public diplomacy is fundamental to its success and language plays a very important part in that."
With the Chinese economy growing at a fast pace and China’s engagement with Africa deepening, more and more Chinese officials are being deputed to various African countries. "But our understanding of Africa lags," Sun said. "If you interact with Africans only through English, French and the other foreign languages imposed by colonizers, you perpetuate hegemony. By learning the indigenous African languages, we fill the gap between engagement and understanding and at the same time, help Africans to preserve their heritage and retain their cultural values."
In collaboration with the Ministry of Education, the BFSU is expanding its foreign language program. By 2020, it will increase the number of languages it teaches to 100 from the current 70. The objective is to teach all the official languages spoken in all the countries China has diplomatic relations with.
The BFSU’s School of Asian and African Studies was established in 1961 with Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa, as one of the first five "founding languages." In the late 1960s, China signed an agreement with newly independent Tanzania and Zambia to help them build the 1,860-km Tanzania-Zambia Railway, their first new transportation line since independence, and there was a great demand for Swahili to communicate with East Africa.
Gradually, Hausa and Arabic were added to the school’s repertoire. This year, seven more African language programs are being included: Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, as well as Tigrigna, spoken in both Ethiopia and Eritrea; Afrikaans and Zulu (South Africa); Malagasy (Madagascar); Somali (Somalia); and Comorian (Comoros Islands).
In the 15th century, Chinese navigator Zheng He sailed to the Horn of Africa, establishing contact with East Africa. Six centuries later, starting from September, 16 Chinese students from the BFSU will go to Ethiopia, South Africa, Madagascar, Somalia and Comoros to learn the major languages there and get an insight into the local culture so that they can return home to become teachers and researchers at these newly established language departments.
It is nearly 7 p.m. and well past her working hours but Liu Hong (her real name has been withheld on request) is still in her office in Beijing, intently poring over a typewritten manual. The 27-year-old, who works as an office assistant, is doing her Amharic lessons. "I would like to move up in my career," Liu said, explaining why she has chosen to learn a language virtually unknown in China and challenging as well. Memorizing the very script is a challenge since it is entirely different from the Roman one or Chinese characters. "Learning Amharic would give me a unique skill. I could become an Amharic teacher," Liu said.
Young Chinese are being encouraged to be multilingual. For instance, since Madagascar was a former French colony and has French as its other official language, the students chosen to learn Malagasy will also be sent to Paris. The BFSU has a collaboration with the Paris-based National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations, famed for its language teaching, and the Chinese students sent there will learn both Malagasy and French.
"Multilingualism is very important," Sun said. "In China, we have 56 ethnic groups. In Africa, there are 54 [recognized] states and each group’s language represents its cultural values. When you learn their languages, it shows you respect them, their culture and values."
Chinese students’ attitude toward learning foreign languages - and Africa - is changing. In the past, learning a foreign language was motivated by economic and career considerations and the majority opted to learn the languages spoken in developed economies. But now there is a new sense of adventure, empathy and patriotism.
"Language opens a very important window for young Chinese people to understand Africa," Sun said. "In the past 40 to 50 years, African languages were a rarity in language schools because the pursuit of new languages was economy-related and the students thought more of themselves. But now they are inspired to go to Africa [for other reasons]."
An example of that is a student chosen to go to Somali capital Mogadishu this year to learn the Somali language. For a long time, Somalia has been under attack by extremist groups, notably Al-Shabaab. As recently as February 28, the outlawed group bombed a restaurant in Baidoa City, killing at least 30 civilians. Though the Somalian Government has assured the university the Chinese student would be safe, there is an element of uncertainty.
But the student (who can’t be named for security reasons) is undeterred. "I know what’s going on in Somalia from the TV and movies," he told his teachers. "But I still want to go. It is my [national] obligation to do so."