Mandarin in Zimbabwe: to learn or not to learn
Dr Alex T. Magaisa
Some may agree that this is often the case with the government of Zimbabwe. Certain ideas that would be greeted with respect coming from another government are treated with suspicion when coming from the Zimbabwe government. It is probably because the government has lost the minimum level of credibility and its currency has depreciated in the court of international public opinion. I am drawn to this by the news suggesting that Zimbabwe is calling on universities to introduce a course of the Chinese language (presumably the dominant Mandarin) and history in the higher education system. To be sure, there is nothing inherently wrong with learning a new language and many businesses and governments are looking to encourage multi-lingualism in this climate of globalisation. But there are problems with the approach, which we must analyse beforehand.
There are three principal points that I wish to discuss in this article. First, multi-lingualism is an asset for the future and therefore the idea of learning Mandarin should not necessarily be dismissed out of hand. Second, however because language is an instrument of power the issue of choice represents contested territory at both national and international levels. It is a truism that language and culture are inseparable and there are bound to be conflicts over the choice and use of language in any given context. We must here guard against using force to introduce a language. Third, there is increasingly a strong connection between firstly language and knowledge development and also language and international economic life.
In times of economic hardship and struggle for physical survival it is too easy to sideline the importance of language and cultural development. It appears redundant to discuss issues of language and culture when people are engaged in daily battles to survive the vagaries of life. That is understandable but that is also one of the regrettable consequences of conflict and stalemate at a political and economic level.
The suggestion to introduce Chinese is made on the basis of promoting economic and cultural ties with China, a growing economic behemoth. The trouble is there is no suggestion that the Chinese will also learn any of indigenous languages of Zimbabwe so there is no real exchange there. It’s unlikely that the Chinese government will introduce a compulsory course in Shona, Ndebele, Venda, Kalanga, etc. But we know that China is actively promoting the use of the English as a second language and Chinese students have flooded British universities. This is partly because of the power of the English language demonstrated by the dominant role in international commerce, politics, culture. So this is not about cultural exchange. We must swallow and tell the truth. It is about power and us willingly submitting to a new imperial power in linguistic terms.
The truth here is Zimbabwe is simply succumbing to the dictates if international economic life. This is no different from what happened when the current dominant language of power, English, came to dominate to local economic, political and cultural landscape. There is nothing entirely wrong with learning a foreign language, especially one that is likely to play a dominant role in economic life in the future. Mandarin, China’s main language is spoken by 25% of the global population and is one of the UN official languages. China is an emerging political and economic power, which it is estimated, will dominate the world in the next 50 years. It is understandable therefore, that one might wish to learn Mandarin because it will become a key language of international commerce, alongside English. There is an economic interest to pursue here, not the cultural argument that is being used in some circles.
But the problem is there seems to be some ideological confusion here. At a time when the dominant slogan is about preserving sovereignty and never to be a colony again, the idea of compelling the introduction of Chinese represents some level of hypocrisy. The question one might ask is: What really has been done to promote the learning of local languages at a high level? Many people of different ethnic backgrounds and regions in Zimbabwe cannot even communicate between themselves precisely because nothing substantive has been done to promote local languages within the wider community. Some critics have derided the dominance of the English language as an instrument of negative cultural change in other territories. So if Mandarin is to be compulsory, what is the implication for local languages – with a new dominant force compulsorily thrust upon them they are likely to be worse off in 50 years than they are today.
Perhaps Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa could draw some lessons from the European Union. The EU system is a good illustration of recognition of language as a symbol of national identity – all EU legislation and official documentation must be translated into the native languages of member states. Yes, this probably increases the costs of operation but it preserves a far more invaluable resource: the cultural identity and sovereignty of each member state. In pandering to the Chinese, we must not lose sight of the key role of local languages and willingly submitting ourselves to a new colonial force in linguistic terms while pretending to run away from another global hegemony - English. Here is a man running away from the clutches of the lion straight into the flames of the dragon!
One might argue that it suggests the ideological confusion current afflicting the state’s foreign policy and international relations. Which is why it would be naïve to discuss the issue of language in narrow terms of simply learning a new language. There is a political angle to it as well, one that resonates with colonial forces from which we are supposed to be escaping. Hopefully there is no suggestion learning Mandarin will be made compulsory. If so it would be a worrying point. Any language of compulsion resonates with the language of force. It would bring brutal echoes of the manner in which foreign languages were introduced in colonial Africa, in some cases such as former French and Portuguese colonies completely wiping away the local languages as the media of communication. Except that the force is now being administered by the local rulers, not foreigners.
The point is that there is no need to compel anyone to teach or learn Mandarin. To learn or not to learn the language should purely be a matter of choice. Personally, I would choose to learn Mandarin because of the afore-mentioned economic benefits that may accrue to me in future. If I had got that foresight when I was at University in the 1990s, I would have leant for free (or at a very cheap price) a number of both local and foreign languages, which I have had to pay for later in my professional life. If a student asked for my advice today, I would tell her to learn at least one foreign language but also to learn another local language. The ability to speak and write in another major language besides English is a great selling point in the marketplace. So I will not necessarily dismiss out of hand the suggestion to introduce the teaching of the language but it ought to be left to individual and institutional choice.
At the same time that the government would like to promote the learning of Chinese, it must be reminded that more could be done about the position of local languages. Although it is a point that is often dismissed, the learning process in the education system can be enhanced through use of local languages. Some people struggle in school not necessarily because they are daft but because the language of teaching is one that is introduced at a later stage in life and often is not the language of every use. Those of us who can speak and write the language take it for granted and believe that anyone else can use it in the same way. But we also do not realise that our capacity to generate ideas and be more productive could be enhanced through use of our own languages. It is not uncommon for one to think in the local language and then try to express it in English.
In dismissing local languages, sometimes we tend to ignore the fact that for generations local people carried and generated their knowledge through their local languages. Indeed a massive amount of traditional knowledge systems exist through the medium of oral local languages. The demise of those languages also signals the loss of knowledge that is expressed and carried through the languages. Language therefore in effect is a repository of knowledge and consequently there is a connection between languages and the generation and storage of knowledge. The importance of knowledge in today’s global economy is now well known. One only needs to see the modern scientific researchers scrambling for medicinal plants in traditional communities using traditional knowledge systems carried through the medium of local languages. Sadly, many of our own local scientists bar a few lack the will to exploit the knowledge carried through those languages to pursue scientific research. To be fair there are some who are dedicated but lack the resources because government does not support their endeavours. So you see then, that there is a strong connection between languages and scientific research which could be crucial for economic development. But sadly, our priorities lie elsewhere. This knowledge and the languages are already threatened by the dominance of English. Their fate will be sealed if Mandarin is forced upon the locals.
Personally, I have no qualms with linguistic diversity. To have multiple language skills is a skill that I would encourage. But I would do it out of choice not because someone prescribes it as a policy from above. People become sceptical when a foreign language is promoted at the expense of local languages and other priorities. They begin t question, quite rightly, the motives behind pushing them toward a certain direction. There is no exchange here – it is quite simply one language of power being given space to dislodge another. It is yet another move in this game of international politics – and yet again the people are the pawns.
Dr Magaisa is a lawyer
and this article is based on his research into issues of legal protection
and use of traditional knowledge of medicinal plants for scientific
and economic development. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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