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Why More Africans Are Learning Mandarin

A China in Africa Podcast

The South African government’s 2015 decision to start offering Mandarin Chinese classes as a foreign language option at schools nation-wide sparked an uproar that baffled people in other, often more affluent, societies around the world where the demand to learn Chinese outstrips the supply of qualified teachers. Opposition to teaching Mandarin is largely centered on the difficulty of the language and on the argument that resources should instead be focused on other subjects in South Africa’s under-performing educational system.

Parents have turned to social media to express their concerns that learning Chinese could come at the expense of improving their children’s primary language skills in English, French, Arabic, and Kiswahili, among others. In school systems that already face a number of challenges ranging from a lack of resources to ballooning class size, these parents’ concerns are understandable. In the end, according to critics, Chinese classes, while well intended, could potentially serve as a costly distraction to a child’s core educational objectives.

While the issue has become a full-fledged political debate in South Africa, elsewhere in Africa demand for Chinese classes is booming. The Chinese government underwrites much of the current Mandarin language education in Africa through the Confucius Institute, the language and cultural training centers affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education. Currently, there are at least 46 Confucius Institutes across Africa with more expected in the coming years.

So does it make sense for African children to learn Mandarin? Prominent African attorney Patrick Ache says “it depends.” The South African-based, Cameroonian-born, Chinese-speaking attorney agrees with parents who are worried about Mandarin classes being implemented at the expense of their children’s core curriculum, but adds that if Chinese language education is paired with sophisticated technical training it could open tremendous professional opportunities for African youth.

Patrick joins Eric and Cobus to discuss the merits of teaching Mandarin Chinese in African schools and why it may be very beneficial for some children but not all.