When Beijing International Studies University opened its doors in 1964, students could choose from 10 languages to study. It stayed that way for half a century.
Things didn’t change until 2014, a year after Chinese President Xi Jinping ascended to power with a determination to bolster China’s presence on the world stage. Now, after a rapid expansion, the university (BISU) teaches 26 languages. Its newest additions include Czech, Hebrew and Estonian.
Across China, universities, high schools and even middle schools are rushing to do the same, amid a flurry of new language instruction that reflects the fast-changing nature of China’s role in the world. At schools today, students can enroll in languages as diverse as Rundi (from Burundi), Cook Islands Maori, Divehi (from the Maldives) and Bislama (from Vanuatu).
China’s foreign policy was once defined by a desire to maintain a low profile and leave the world’s business to others. Its new lust for languages is a vivid example of how that inward focus is shifting.
At Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), administrators are pushing to teach 100 languages by 2020. Though it remains well short of that goal today, if it succeeds it will rival institutions such as the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Cultures in Paris, which teaches 103 languages and cultures, boasting that it “is in a class of its own.”
For China’s leaders, it’s a question of building linguistic capacity to match its global ambitions. China’s investments in other countries in the past two years alone exceeded US$290-billion. Chinese diplomats and political heads have taken an increasingly assertive role in mediating global affairs, while the Chinese military and media have extended their reach far beyond the country’s borders. Meanwhile, China’s Belt and Road Initiative − with its vision of Chinese-built networks of roads, ports, and trains connecting Asia, Europe and Africa – is an attempt to position Beijing at the economic centre of dozens of countries.
What it means is that, at BISU today, “we don’t need to spend much time convincing students to learn things like Latvian,” said university vice-president Li Xiaomu. The city of Beijing, he added, wants to become a centre for culture and international communication. “It takes a lot of foreign language talent to make that dream come true,” he said.
Such a vision is relatively recent.
The Chinese government has in recent years spent heavily on teaching the world to speak Mandarin, pouring billions of dollars into hundreds of so-called Confucius centres dedicated to Chinese instruction in foreign countries. Confucius Institutes in more than 142 countries have trained more than seven million students since 2004, according to government statistics.
At home, meanwhile, China has long seen English as its passport to the world. In the mid-1990s, English became one of the three pillars of the annual gaokaouniversity placement exams, alongside Chinese and math. The emphasis on English has been so great that Yang Rui, director of the Comparative Education Research Center at the University of Hong Kong, wrote in a 2014 academic article: “China is home to more speakers of English than any other country.”
He also said: “Proficiency in English has been widely regarded as a national, as well as a personal asset.”
But in the past few years, China has turned its attention to a much broader range of tongues, driven partly by the globe-spanning vision of the the Belt and Road Initiative.
“The number of English students is declining, because we need to cultivate more high-end talented students who will contribute more to our country’s development,” said Chen Jie, who teaches Arabic at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU).
“The introduction of Belt and Road marks an iconic turning point,” he said.
SISU now has courses in 30 languages – its most recent additions include Swedish and Ukrainian – but is working to teach the languages of each of the nearly 70 Belt and Road countries.
Elsewhere, major non-English languages are gaining a higher profile. More than 50 universities in China today offer Arabic instruction, Prof. Chen said. A decade ago, it “was no more than a dozen.”
“China needs this language more and more,” he said − a sentiment equally true of other languages now on offer.
Not long ago, linguistic skills might have been useful for a Chinese graduate primarily in securing work as a diplomat. Now, foreign fluency is a ticket to jobs in fields as diverse as railroad construction and journalism.
”Most men majoring in Persian want to work in government and big firms. Women show more interest in jobs related to culture and literature,” said Zhou Si, at BISU where Persian is one of the newly introduced courses. The university now teaches the languages of three-quarters of the countries in central and eastern Europe.
For universities, however, the rapid government-dictated pace of introducing new languages has created its own problems. The will to teach has been tempered by difficulties in securing good instructors and teaching aids. At BISU, Persian has a single textbook. The Romanian textbook dates back to 2002.
“Teaching materials are too limited,” said Liu Jianrong, a professor of Romanian.
Government ambitions have also exceeded market realities. The Romanian program accepted its first of cohort of students in the fall of 2017. It may be two or three years before it brings in another class.
If ”there aren’t that many job opportunities, the school could consider postponing the date of next admission,” said Prof. Liu.
For those students who do sign up, studying in China has its advantages: tuition fees are low at home and government scholarships support later studies abroad.
”China is increasingly intertwined with other countries around the world,” said Zhang Wenfeng, a BISU student. “Language is an important factor for a country to become internationalized.”
For educational leaders, however, the new challenge is to improve not just their range of courses, but also how well they teach. BISU is slowing its expansion to improve its teaching teams and methods, while also recruiting language students at an early age. It is promoting a seven-year education process that begins in high school and includes a total of four years of studying abroad. Another project involves teaching lesser-known languages in middle schools.
“Talent cultivation is something that requires a long time to achieve,” said Mr. Li, the university vice-president.
“As an old Chinese saying goes, it takes 10 years to nurture a tree, but 100 years to train a person.”