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Talking the Same Language
China's premier language proficiency competition speaks volumes for the popularity of Mandarin globally
By Francisco Little  ·  2018-08-28  ·   Source: | VOL.10 September 2018
College students from across the globe at the closing ceremony of the 17th Chinese Bridge Chinese Proficiency Competition for Foreign College Students in Changsha, Hunan Province on August 4 (FRANCISCO LITTLE)

Once a year in July and August, the City of Changsha in central China's Hunan Province is inundated with youthful voices from every corner of the globe. It's an eclectic and colorful international gathering that began in 2002 and has been part of the city's event calendar since 2008.

And if you listen closely, you'll hear that the voices are all speaking Chinese.

There's a reason for that. This year, the finals of 17th Chinese Bridge Chinese Proficiency Competition for Foreign College Students, China's premier language competition for foreign students, took place in Changsha on August 4, and instead of English being the lingua franca - as is generally the case when foreign nationals meet up - it's the high and low tones of Chinese dominating proceedings. Before 2008, the final competition was held in different places such as Beijing, Shanghai and Changchun.

Any college student under the age of 30 who was not born in China or any foreign-born Chinese whose first language is not Chinese is eligible to enter the competition.

Preliminary rounds are held between January and June in countries across the world, with the semifinals and finals taking place in China from July to August.

Organized by the Confucius Institute Headquarters, also known as Hanban, and Hunan Provincial People's Government, this year's event was themed One World One Family. The Confucius Institute is an educational and cultural organization with global branches seeking to promote Chinese culture and language abroad.

The top five winners in 2018 were Ruslan Ustinov from Russia, who took the top prize, followed by Theodore Joseph from Australia, Guan Huimin from Indonesia, Anthony Ekwensi from Nigeria and John Gardner Klumpp Jr. from the United States. Each of them had been through a selection process to represent their continent, emerging from nearly 100,000 preliminary contestants around the world.

Australian contestant Theodore Joseph,(left) and Nigerian contestant Anthony Ekwensi perform at the finals of the 17th Chinese Bridge Chinese Proficiency Competition for Foreign College Students in Changsha (FRANCISCO LITTLE)

Speaking volumes

The build up to the competition finals in China was held over a five-week period from July to August. In the process, 152 college students from 141 contesting regions in 118 countries and regions got through the qualifying rounds and then gathered in Changsha for the last elimination phase. It was nerve wrenching stuff as these young linguists morphed into Chinese before the audience's very eyes while being put through the paces.

The finals comprised three sections: I'm a China Hand, Sino-Western Stories, and free speech aimed at evaluating the students' knowledge about China, their ability to understand and reproduce historical events and topics, and their language skills.

One of the three judges this year was Herbert Mushangwe, Director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Zimbabwe.

Mushangwe, who holds a Ph.D. in teaching Chinese as a second language, told ChinAfrica that he felt honored to be selected as a judge of such a prestigious competition from all the Confucius Institute directors in Africa. He said the students were judged on pronunciation, cultural knowledge and performance onstage.

"This competition is very tough. It's great to see students from all over the world using the medium of Chinese to communicate with each other. I think language is the best way of uniting people," said Mushangwe.

Along with the nail-biting competition was a feast of entertainment on a stage festooned with props and lighting that wouldn't have been out of place on Broadway. A gut punching sound system and highly professional performances by the contestants and local pop stars gave the finals a carnival atmosphere.

Particularly spicy was the song and dance performance by Indonesian finalist Guan Huimin, who should seriously consider a future in show business. With all the 152 students who came to China on stage for the finale waving their country flags enthusiastically, it was easy to agree with judge Mushangwe - language definitely is the way to unite people and celebrate this vital thread of humanity.

Keeping the flag flying high for Africa was Ekwensi, 21, who finished the fourth overall but was clearly a crowd favorite.

Ekwensi, a University of Nigeria final- year student, was crowned champion of the African continent. He told ChinAfrica that he has been studying Chinese for two years at the Confucius Institute in Lagos, Nigeria. He was attracted to the language after being captivated with kungfu movies as a child and then developing a fascination for Chinese characters.

"I was curious. When I saw Chinese characters [for the first time], I wondered how people could read them. I wanted to give it a try," he said.

Ekwensi has come a long way since then and now speaks the language with confidence. As it was his first time to visit China, he wasn't sure what to expect, but was impressed with the pace of development and the ease with which he was able to interact with locals.

Duncan Acorlor, 22, from Ghana made the last 15 and the ebullient student was voted most popular online contestant.

"I don't know why I won this," he said modestly. "But I have a lot of friends back home in Ghana from the Confucius Institute who were very supportive. I also studied Chinese for a year at Taiyuan University of Technology in Shanxi Province [and the students there] supported me," he said.

Apart from the contestants, there were also a group of student observers who had their trips sponsored by the Confucius Institute Headquarters. One of them, Justice Gurti, 24, a student from Tanzania traveled to Changsha for 12 days to watch and experience. He came the second in his country's qualifying round of the language competition.

Gurti is a big fan of Chinese food and although he has only been studying Chinese for six months, he burnt the midnight oil to make impressive progress.

"Language is a good way to improve cooperation between Africa and China because not many people here in China speak English, so I can communicate directly with them in Chinese. I will study harder and enter the competition again next year and hopefully I can win it," he said.

Worldwide connection

Since the first Chinese Bridge Chinese Proficiency Competition for Foreign College Students was held 17 years ago, an ever increasing number of students have been learning Chinese globally and the number of Confucius Institutes has mushroomed worldwide. By the end of 2017, according to Hanban, there were 525 Confucius Institutes and 1,113 Confucius Classrooms in 146 countries and regions around the world, at which 2.32 million students studied that year.

Statistics show that Africa had 54 Confucius Institutes and 27 Confucius Institutes classrooms up to date.

As one competitor said in passing, the Chinese Bridge Chinese Proficiency Competition for Foreign College Students is seen as the "Olympics" of Chinese language, and very much a bridge of culture, friendship and meeting of the minds, bringing a whole new meaning to the often used phrase "people-to-people exchanges."

(Commments to franciscolittle@chinafrica.cn)

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