KENYA: Cashing in on foreign language learning

Kenya's universities are rolling out foreign language programmes as nations and investors, especially from Asia, increasingly turn to the East African country for resources to boost their industrial growth. In the past month Kenya's biggest universities - Nairobi and Kenyatta - have announced new courses in Korean and Chinese respectively. They both host branches of China's Confucius Institute.

The new language courses have added impetus to a trend that is influencing Kenya's higher education sector, with key foreign languages seen as tools of global commerce and thus of growing importance to the country and to university graduates.

A spot-check by University World News also revealed rising enrolments in colleges offering foreign languages as Kenyans seek competitive advantages in getting jobs, with students seeking out languages like Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Spanish and French.

The foreign language learning trend has emerged as demand for higher education and student enrolments soar, and competition between universities for students heats up. As a result, educationists said, programmes are becoming more diversified and the number of institutions is growing.

"Education is becoming a lucrative sector in Kenya," said Samuel Owuor, an education consultant in Nairobi, and countries are using higher education to boost business and trade interests. "That coupled with the desire by learners to become all-round professionals who can work in any country and environment, explains the growing appetite for foreign languages."

The University of Nairobi last month became the first in the region to launch a programme in the Korean language. Its foreign language courses also include Chinese, French and German. The university and the Academy of Korean Studies signed a memorandum for a five-year partnership that includes cooperation in research, and exchanges of academic materials, staff and students.

A Confucius Institute was launched at the University of Nairobi in 2005, which officials said was attracting considerable numbers of students. There are now plans for the institute to start offering a four-year degree course at the university.

With China spreading its wings in Africa, the economic giant is reaching out to universities to teach Chinese as a tool of trade. It has been using the Confucius Institute model to penetrate nations where language has been a barrier to commerce. Chinese diplomats in Kenya say there are more than 320 Confucius Institutes in 82 countries, including 13 in Africa.

Three weeks ago, the Confucius Institute and Kenyatta University launched a partnership that will promote Chinese language learning and cultural and educational exchange programmes between the two countries.

"The objective of the institute is to promote the culture of the two countries by breaking language barriers," said Wang Gang, Vice-chairman of the national committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and a member of the political bureau of the Communist Party of China, during the launch of the institute at Kenyatta University.

"With globalisation, it is prudent for countries to learn the language of others in order to promote communication, understanding and further friendship," he added.

Kenyatta University's Chinese programme involves China's Shangdong Normal University. Kenyatta's deputy Vice-chancellor, Professor Paul Wainaina, said the university would waive payment for beginners enrolling in Chinese language and culture courses. He urged Kenyans to take advantage of the opportunity.

Companies from China, and from India, are boosting their presence in Kenya through multi-million shilling acquisition deals, with an eye on lucrative sectors such as telecommunication, tourism, energy, technology, commodities and construction.

The volume of trade with China is booming. Over the past six years, imports from China have risen from Sh6 billion to Sh35 billion (US$0.43 billion), according to the government's Economic Survey 2010, though Kenya's exports to China remain under Sh2 billion.

"The launch of the Confucius Institute of China is a step forward in strengthening bilateral ties between Kenya and China," said Kenya's Vice-president Kalonzo Musyoka. "This will go a long way in promoting tourism between the two countries."

It is not only China that has been reaching out to Kenya through language. European giants such as France and Germany have also been using education to make imprints in the region, with an eye at growing trade and investment.

Arabic is also gaining ground as more Kenyans head to Dubai and Saudi Arabia to work, as well as to Sudan for emerging business opportunities.

As with English, French is already strong in Africa. It is spoken in as many as 30 African countries and is deeply entrenched as an official language in Francophone countries.

Leading universities in Kenya including Nairobi, Moi, Maseno and Kenyatta have added French to their curricula as pressure mounts on them to offer courses that are in tandem with market needs and as they seek to expand their student registers.

With the integration process in East Africa rapidly becoming a reality - last month a common market for the region was launched, encouraging the flow of labour, goods and services around East Africa - investors in Kenya are looking for people who can speak several languages.

This is especially so with French, a key language in Rwanda and Burundi - two French-speaking countries seen as growth frontiers by Kenyan companies keen to expand their business horizons beyond the national boarders.