Asian languages for students challenges English dominance

While universities in China have been rushing headlong into teaching in English, the Yunnan provincial government in the south-west has announced an ambitious initiative to train students to become proficient in South East Asian languages, in preparation for the ASEAN – Association of South East Asian Nations – economic community to be set up by 2015.

According to an announcement in late May by the authorities in Yunnan, which borders on Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Vietnam, some 100,000 students will be taught South East Asian languages by 2015. The scheme involves all of the province’s 28 universities and colleges.

The move is part of a wider push in China towards economic and trade relations with the ASEAN. Courses in the languages of ASEAN member countries have opened in dozens of Chinese universities, the official news agency Xinhua reported in December.

In Yunnan, students interested in foreign languages will be encouraged to consider South East Asian languages as alternatives to English, with officials hoping that students of economics, trade and international affairs will also take part, official media said.

“Some people [in China’s government] are arguing against the domination of English, which is strongly promoted in all of China,” said Anwei Feng, director of the graduate school at Bangor University’s College of Education and an expert on multilingualism and minorities education in China.

“This would be a kind of counter-force to English in the sense that it also has economic and political implications.

“Clearly Yunnan would like to take the lead in this initiative. They border on a number of South East Asian countries and already have contact with these countries, especially Burma.”

However, others have noted that ASEAN countries themselves use English as the lingua franca, particularly in trade relations, with countries like Thailand stepping up English language training at universities and for civil servants in advance of 2015.

There could be additional reasons for the new language initiative, Feng said. Yunnan “wants to promote a special model for universities in the region so that they can stand out. They are using quite a strategic argument that is attracting some funding from the central government.”

The ASEAN countries are: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

With high economic growth in many of these countries, and continued economic problems in China’s markets in the West, preparing graduates for a push towards Asia is considered to be strategically important.

While describing the Yunnan announcement as “a very bold initiative,” Feng said it may be difficult to recruit such large numbers of students to learn what in China are considered to be minor languages.

Chinese students learning Asian languages overwhelmingly opt for Japanese or Korean.

“It is a matter of scale, what kind of numbers will they get,” he said, adding: “While I don’t think top students will want to major in Burmese, there may be some students who are struggling to get a university place who may do so in order to get a place.”

Analysts note that the demand for graduates with South East Asian languages is expected to rise, as ambitious transport infrastructure projects link Yunnan with South East Asia.

The Chinese media has been flagging up the opening of an international airport in Kunming, the Yunnan capital, at the end of June as the country’s fourth largest international airport. In addition Kunming is expected to be connected via a high-speed railway network to Vientiane in Laos, the Thai capital Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and Singapore, by 2015.

“Yunnan is our nation’s land passage to South East Asia and South Asia. Its strategic position is very important,” said the state council, cited on the Chinese government’s official website.

Yunnan’s initiative also represents a departure from the government’s policy of relying on promoting the Chinese language in South East Asian countries with Confucius institutes set up in many universities in the region well before they were set up in Western countries.

Since the late 1990s, the governments of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Cambodia and Laos have adopted measures to encourage Chinese learning in schools and national universities.

But according to some experts, growth in the numbers outside the ethnic Chinese populations in these countries opting to learn Chinese is beginning to tail off.