Students at the Confucius Institute in Dakar (COURTESY PHOTO)
In Dakar, Happy Kids Kindergarten has set itself an ambitious challenge: to teach Senegalese toddlers to speak Chinese. This kindergarten, located in Ngor District, boasts of being the first trilingual school in Senegal. In addition to French (the country's official language) and English, the school also teaches Mandarin. With China being the world's most populous country and second largest economy, there is much to benefit from it this decision.
One can say many Senegalese parents have sized up what is at stake today. Like Happy Kids Kindergarten, more and more schools are including Mandarin into their curriculum. This is the case of Ndiar Middle School, about 50 km north of Dakar. Built through a Chinese cooperation project, the school has made Mandarin a regular subject for all its students.
According to Sun Zhen, Educational Director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD), Chinese-language teachers are becoming more and more involved in a number of kindergartens, schools and private higher education institutions throughout the capital. Gaston Berger University of Saint Louis, the second largest university in Senegal, now has a Confucius Classroom. Another one will soon open at Assane Seck University in Ziguinchor, in the south of the country.
At UCAD in Dakar, the Center for Information Science and Technology Studies and the Institute of Applied Foreign Languages, which train technicians and managers for the hospitality industry, both send their students to attend classes at the Confucius Institute.
Created in 2013 to promote Chinese language, culture and know-how, Dakar's UCAD Confucius Institute is the world's 323rd Confucius Institute. In addition to Mandarin courses, the institute puts special emphasis on vocational education to better serve the training needs of Senegal as an emerging country.
Its mission includes training better managers, technicians and agricultural entrepreneurs by giving its students the skills, knowledge and know-how actually needed in the job market. Classes also cover general education, traditional Chinese medicine and tourism.
The Confucius Institute covers an area of 800 square meters on two floors that cost nearly 1 billion CFA francs ($1.7 million) to construct. It has seven classrooms, two audio-visual rooms, an amphitheater that can seat 100 students, a library with more than 3,000 books, a showroom with a dedicated space to learn about China's tea culture, and an exhibition room.
In 2017, the institute had 1,300 students, up from 57 in 2013. Over the last five years, the Confucius Institute has trained more than 5,000 learners, according to Sun. One of the reasons behind its success is the support of the Professional and Technical Training Fund, which provides scholarships to students.
The Confucius Institute also seeks to keep up with the times, according to experts. In 2014, Senegal discovered large reserves of oil and gas in its territorial waters. With this discovery, several new jobs will become available and the institute has set up a new study field on oil-related jobs to provide relevant skills.
According to Mamadou Fall, the institute's Executive Director, this new initiative will allow it to train qualified professionals who will be able to work in this emerging sector of the Senegalese economy. This new initiative, said Fall, will open its first classes this year.
The institute also trains business assistants to help Chinese companies that have settled in Senegal. Indeed, many Chinese traders buy Senegalese groundnuts and a number of Chinese nationals own businesses and restaurants in Senegal. These are just some of the many exciting opportunities that exist in this sector.
In fact, many companies are turning to the Confucius Institute when it comes to recruit staff. At the entrance of their building, a number of recruitment ads can be seen on the bulletin board, proof that teaching Mandarin has a bright future in Senegal. The Confucius Institute is now working on establishing a Department of Sinology and Asian Studies, said Fall, adding that the project is ready and waiting for UCAD's approval.
Mandarin is enjoying an unprecedented popularity among learners in Senegal, as evidenced by the figures quoted above.
According to Sun, it is the parents who push their children to enroll in the Confucius Institute, knowing that by mastering this language, they will be able to access many new opportunities. For its part, China offers a number of scholarships to the best students, giving them a chance to experience immersion in Chinese culture and society.
Last year, students Waly Edouard Ndiaye, Sanou Sy and Elimane Jacky Bakhoum took advantage of such scholarships to travel and stay in China for two weeks. They were part of a batch of 13 students from Dakar's Confucius Institute who were selected for this trip to China.
With the number of Chinese companies in Diamniadio Industrial Park growing, students believe that mastering Chinese, in addition to their respective major, will help them secure better jobs upon graduation. Diamniadio Industrial Park was built 35 km east of Darkar in March this year to attract foreign investment.
Surprisingly, another reason that motivates young Senegalese to study Mandarin is linguistic proximity, as teacher and researcher Koumakh Bakhoum told ChinAfrica. As the local Confucius Institute's first Senegalese teacher, Bakhoum is a fine connoisseur of the Chinese language. During his research, he discovered a number of similarities between Mandarin and local languages spoken in Senegal, such as Serer, his mother tongue, and Wolof. For example, the words "hongse" (red), "tang" (hot) and "zhiwu" (plant) all have the exact same meaning in Seereer, Wolof and Mandarin.
The three languages' numerical system is also similar, said Bakhoum. Indeed, the two Senegalese languages mentioned above and Mandarin all use a decimal numerical system. In Seereer, Wolof and Mandarin, "ten (and) one," "ten (and) nine," "two ten" and "three ten" respectively mean eleven, nineteen, twenty and thirty.
Another common point is how to use the imperative. The three languages use a similar form to express a polite request: "wo gari bog" in Serer, "yow niewal bog" in Wolof and "ni lai ba" in Mandarin. This form of politeness is formed by adding "bog" in Serer and Wolof and "ba" in Mandarin.
Bakhoum seeks to deepen this topic in his doctoral thesis. In early October, he returned to China, where he enrolled at Sichuan University in Chengdu, with several hundred other Senegalese students.
(Reporting from Senegal)
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