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Finding the Right Word
University promotes study of African languages to enhance cultural understanding
By Sudeshna Sarkar | NO. 13 MARCH 31, 2016

Sun Xiaomeng

When Sun Xiaomeng left the city of Zaria in north Nigeria after finishing her master's in the famed Ahmed Bello University in 2005, she went to say an emotional goodbye to an unusual group of acquaintances--the Hausa vendors at the local market where she used to buy her groceries during her two-year stay.

"It was a moving experience," said the now-38-year-old, who serves as 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 person 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 asked me, and step by step, our friendship grew."

Sun began 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 of Nigerians, who also boast Africa's largest economy, Hausa is spoken in countries such as Niger, Sudan, Chad, Ghana and Togo. After majoring in Hausa, she went to Nigeria on a Chinese Scholarship Council scholarship to improve her language skills as well as soak up West African culture.

She subsequently studied under Professor Li Anshan, a leading African studies scholar, and obtained a doctorate from St. Anthony's College, Oxford. Today, she is directing young Chinese students toward other indigenous African languages and literature.

Filling the gap 

A huge language-learning program is underway in China, dovetailing with the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative announced by President Xi Jinping to advance the common development 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," believes Sun. "Public diplomacy is fundamental to its success and language plays a very important part in that."

With the Chinese economy growing at a rapid pace and China's engagement with Africa deepening, more and more Chinese officials are being assigned to posts in various African countries.

"But our understanding of Africa lags," claimed Sun. "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 preserve their heritage and retain their cultural values."

In collaboration with the Ministry of Education, 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 with which China has diplomatic relations.

BFSU's School of Asian and African Studies was established in 1961 with Swahili, the local tongue of East Africa, as one of the first five "founding languages." In the late 1960s, China signed an agreement with then-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 cross-cultural communication.

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; Tigrigna, spoken in both Ethiopia and Eritrea; Afrikaans and Zulu (South Africa); Malagasy (Madagascar); Somali (Somalia); and Comorian (the Comoros Islands).

In the 15th century, Chinese explorer Zheng He sailed to the Horn of Africa, establishing contact with East Africa. Six centuries later, 16 Chinese students from BFSU--starting in September this year--will go to Ethiopia, South Africa, Madagascar, Somalia and Comoros to learn the major languages and gain insights into the local cultures so that they can return home to become teachers and researchers at these newly established language departments.

Tesfaye Yilma Sabo (center), a senior diplomat at the Ethiopian Embassy in Beijing, attends an Amharic lecture at the Beijing Foreign Studies University in November 2013 (COURTESY OF BFSU)

Intrepid voyagers 

It is nearly 7 p.m. and well past her official working hours, but Liu Hong (her real name has been withheld on request) is still in her office in Beijing, intently pouring 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 such a challenging course, and a language virtually unknown in her home country. "Learning Amharic would give me a unique skill. I could become an Amharic teacher."

Young Chinese like Liu can even be offered incentives for becoming multilingual. For instance, since Madagascar was a former French colony and has French as its other official language, BFSU students who have chosen to learn Malagasy will also be sent to Paris. BFSU has a collaborative agreement with the Paris-based National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations. The Chinese students who enroll there will learn both Malagasy and French.

"Multilingualism is very important," Professor 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 is also changing. Now there is a new sense of adventure, empathy and even patriotism associated with language proficiency.

According to Sun, language opens a very important window for young Chinese people to understand Africa. "In the past 40 to 50 years, African languages were a rarity in language schools because the pursuit of new languages was economy-related," she said. "But now they are inspired to go to Africa."

For instance, one BFSU student chose to go to the Somali capital Mogadishu this year in order to learn the Somali language. Somalia has long been under attack by extremist groups, notably Al-Shabaab. As recently as February 28, the terrorist group bombed a restaurant in Baidoa, killing at least 30 civilians. Though the Somali Government has assured the university that the Chinese students would be safe, there is still an element of uncertainty.

But the student (who cannot be named for security reasons) is undeterred. "I know what's going on in Somalia from watching television," he told his teachers. "But I still want to go. It is my obligation to do so."

The author is an editorial consultant for ChinAfrica magazine 

Copyedited by Mara Lee Durrell

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