By Victor Gotevbe, Editor-in-Chief; Celestine Osemeilu, Editor; Nathaniel Gotevbe, Correspondent; and Andrew Enu, Business Development Manager.
The reasons for learning a new language are varied, but the importance of learning foreign languages is universal. It is always beneficial one way or another. The many cognitive benefits of learning languages are undeniable. It has been argued that people who speak more than one language have improved memory, problem-solving and critical thinking skills, enhanced concentration, ability to multitask, and better listening skills. It is an asset that promotes a lifetime of effective communication.
Chinese language (Mandarin) is the most widely spoken language today in the world; spoken by over a billion people globally. Learning Mandarin helps to learn about the Chinese people and culture.
Professor Wang Yongjing, Chinese Director of Confucius Institute, University of Lagos in an interview with Diplomatic Watch spoke broadly about several issues including the establishment of the Institute in Nigeria, how students are enrolled and the scholarship opportunities available to qualified Nigerians to study in China. She also talked about how Mandarin has become important to those working in business, communications and nearly every other career track, among other critical issues. Excerpt.
Please can you tell us extensively what Confucius Institute is all about?
Confucius Institute, University of Lagos was set up by my University in China; Beijing Institute of Technology and the University of Lagos (UNILAG) but it is supported by Confucius Institute headquarters in China. We are here just because the local people or Nigerian people wanted to study the Chinese language and learn about China. Ten years ago the agreement was signed between both Universities (UNILAG and Beijing Institute of Technology) because Nigerian people were very interested in the Chinese culture and language. This institute was set up almost 10 years ago.
Our main work started by teaching Chinese and helping the local people to learn about Chinese people and the Chinese culture. We do this by holding some cultural events and we also just try to introduce whatever the local people are interested in at our classroom. And we teach Chinese language not only to Primary school students but also, Secondary and University Students. For example, UNILAG students. The students can learn Chinese language and can learn about Chinese culture so that they can apply to the headquarters in China for their scholarship.
We have so many universities in China that can accept these International Overseas students to study in China. Mainly, we help our students to learn Chinese language in China. My University, Beijing Institute of Technology is a good example. If the students are over the age of 30, they can still learn Chinese language and study more about Chinese culture so that they can go to a local Chinese enterprise, no matter whether it is in Lagos or anywhere in Nigeria. I am sure that they will be paid very well if they work in a Chinese company or enterprise as an Interpreter or as a person who can help in organizing or managing in a company.
This institute is operated together with UNILAG. You see we have been working and living here for almost ten years. We have been working hard to help those who are interested in Chinese language or Culture. So, that is why we are here.
We believe that the Chinese language you are referring to is Mandarin?
Yes, you are right.
Mandarin is presently spoken by over a billion people in the world followed closely by the English language that is spoken by just a little less than a billion people. Could you tell the reason why it is spreading into Africa and what value does it hold?
Let’s talk about Nigerian people. Since, I came to Nigeria three years ago, I found that Chinese language has been so welcomed by the Nigerian people. I think the reason is we are having more and more Chinese people working in Nigeria. We have so many leaving their mother land to Africa to study and to work. I am sure that you already know we have “One Belt and One Road Initiative” introduced by our President, Xi Jiping.
Lots of Chinese people know that historically Africa people are brothers, sisters and friends. So, we are visiting our friends. Since I came to this Institute I have received many people who came to my office asking us for Chinese teaching. So, I think that this is because they found that in this world, China is developing so fast. Many aged people find the dramatic change of China appealing and then developed interest in the country. Why is this country developing so well and so fast? This is one question that gets their attention. I guess that is the point. And many parents in Nigeria love their children to study Mandarin. I know that many Nigerians are learning French and German. At the same time, so many people want their children to study Mandarin. I think the value is that the two nations are coming closer and closer. We are learning each other so well so that with the language learning and cultural communication, the two nations are becoming better brothers and sisters. So, this is the value.
Is there a specific Teaching methodology?
We are teaching Chinese language just like what we do when we are teaching English language and Mathematics. I since realized that Nigerian people are so good at learning languages. We follow scientific methodology. We just teach it as one of the courses so many people are undertaking. It is not a special one. It is a language just like Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa. My university is next to a language learning university, called Beijing Foreign Study University. Hausa has been taught there maybe for 14 years.
Let us look at the Classroom Experience. What activities do you apply when you teach Mandarin?
Actually, we have a lot of text books that we can use. I am sure that many students are studying in my institute for the purpose of going to China to study. So, they focus on preparing for the examination, which is HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) translated as the Chinese preliminary examination. It is a proficiency test used in China.
We have a good method on how we teach, apply and have examination. We have the examination over here and we then mail the test papers back to the Headquarters. And maybe after 40 days, we get the results. The different results of the students show that they can apply for different levels of scholarship. This is well managed by our Headquarters in China.
So, what we hear you say is that learning Chinese is a prerequisite for you to get the scholarship?
This is one of the important ways that we are using. For a lot of English speaking countries they use GRE and TOEFL. This is very similar. We just use it as a standard for managing our students. Of course, we also observed our students. They must be good at not only the language learning but must also be of good conduct, have self control, discipline and patriotism. We inquire from them to determine the purpose to study in China before they undertake the study. And we do hope they come back to Nigeria after learning in China. We know many remain in China without returning after their studies. We hope our students will be the Ambassadors of Nigeria and they will be good, and great builders of their motherland.
As the Chinese Director of the Institute, are there difficulties you face teaching the students the language as it is relatively new to them?
As the Director of the institute, the biggest challenge is not the difficulty in learning the language but about the strong interest in the language. This is about fewer or inefficient teachers of the language. We understand that so many students want to study Mandarin and we do need teachers as well. The challenge is that we don’t have enough teachers. We just have more and more students, schools and institutions requesting for teachers to be sent to them. We are focusing on Lagos state. But we know there are so many people outside Lagos who want to study the Chinese language. So, they just have to apply to my institute. At the same time, we are also focusing on helping our students to become Chinese language teachers in the future so that they can help their people who may include their brothers, sisters and their children to study Chinese.
If they continually work hard, it is not difficult to study Chinese language. We have a good example of our local teachers, our Nigerian Teachers of Mandarin. They have studied the language for many years. Take Dr. Banjo for example, who is one of our teachers, he used to be a student in China where he studied History and Culture for 7 years. Now he has become a good Chinese teacher on his return to Nigeria.
The language is not a barrier. The issue is the interest. If you are interested in Mandarin or you want to learn more about China, we can help.
How do you plan to stimulate the interest of Africans in learning Mandarin, as there may be a fixation that it is difficult to learn it. Hence, they may want to shy away from the language?
We encourage our students in several ways. Every year, we organize summer camp. We help as many as 20 people to go to China to see the country. If you want your motherland to also become a fast developing country like China, then study hard and go experience China yourself. Go to China to study some technology; to study something that you can use for the future work back home. Some go to China to see the big difference between our cultures. Others are more interested in Chinese culture.
When these students study hard, they will likely get the scholarship and after several years they return to be part of the teaching staff so that they can help more people. For example, if we send a teacher to a school, this particular teacher can teach hundreds of students. So, we hope that in this way we can help and encourage more people. Besides the Summer camp, we also give scholarship to our own students. The Confucius Institute, UNILAG scholarship will encourage them because we know many students are from poor families. We hope they can use these money to support their studies.
Further still, we also have educators or principals delegation to China. Every year, we organize some people to go to China to see China themselves and when they are back they can help out in organizing more students in their schools or they can share their understanding of new China to other people. That way, we can assist more individuals to discover about Real China because they have seen China with their own eyes.
Aside from teaching in the classroom, we also go out of the classroom. Sometimes, we go out of the campus as you saw last time. We organize a lot of Chinese traditional festivals and cultural events. With these events, we help the students or audience to know about Chinese traditions and of course the modern China. These students also get to know the Chinese enterprises. As a matter of fact, we recommend our students who have studied very well and whom we think can work to these enterprises as Interpreters. We do this recommendation without charging any fee. The Chinese companies can come to my institute to conduct interviews and to see our students. If they are satisfied with their performance they can take them away. We encourage our students to get closer to China even without going there.
In the area of business, we know the Chinese to be very industrious and enterprising just like their Nigeria counterparts. Do you have any programme for first time business visitors or those who intend to go to China for business related purposes that are looking for an easier way to learn the Chinese characters for easy navigation or less complex ways of doing business when they arrive in China?
Good question. There is a big market in Lagos named Alaba International Market. We discovered that many of the traders are dealing with Chinese business people. We want to set up a teaching site in that market so that the business people don’t have to come to UNILAG. They can study Mandarin in their own market. Our teachers can go twice a week if they like. Every three or four hours they can study the language.
Last year, we organized a teaching course for Nigerian Immigration officials. We taught 40 of them in our institute. And we are doing same for the second batch of another 40 people who have come to join us. I know many of them are working in the airport. So, once the Chinese people arrive in Nigeria, on first contact they will apply the Chinese language to them. Furthermore, we are also thinking about setting a stand in the airport to help the Chinese people or Chinese business people or whoever comes to work in Nigeria. By so doing, it will aid them to get their visa upon arrival seamlessly and or help them to contact their Nigerian business partners. We are having a good working relationship with the Chinese Consulate (your friends) and many Chinese communities so that if our students need assistance, we just directly recommend them to the Chinese communities.
Learning Mandarin by your personal assessment, which is easier between writing and speaking?
Speaking is always easier. Our students can speak a lot. It is true that writing Chinese character can be complex. The student has to focus on learning it and also make great efforts with this. You know the Chinese characters, you can tell how complicated they appear but you see our teaching over here, we take it according to different levels. We have level 1 for starters. And we have level 5. For level 5, students can write quite complex sentences. So, many students can write quite well although it is difficult. Practice is the key. Otherwise, you tend to forget.
You speak English fluently. Therefore, in the mind of an average Chinese would you say it is less difficult to learn English language than an African would learn Mandarin?
I think it is the same. In China, English learning is also very popular. Maybe 40 years ago when we had the open door policy initiated in China, English language became suddenly as popular as you can imagine. Chinese parents have paid so much for their children to learn English. Also for University entrance examination, you had to score good marks in English language aside other courses. When we were applying for our promotion, we also needed English language. So, I am sure that Chinese today in Nigeria, the popularity of the language is just as the English language when it became very popular 30 years ago.
Talking about the requirements for learning the language, particularly for those who may not be able to get the scholarship, how affordable is it, learning Mandarin?
In two parts, we are helping our students. The first part is that the students come to register themselves either as prospective UNILAG Students or as UNILAG Students. So, we have two different fees for both groups of students. They pay for their learning and pay just a little for the examination. So, if they pay for the learning and the examination that is all because it is free for them to apply for the scholarship. They do everything online. If they have internet at home, they can apply at home. It is the teachers who will just assist them to get adequate information and contact with the University in China, especially if they get the approval or they are approved by the University authority (The University and the Confucius institute headquarters in China). We will be informed online. So, the students have to pay for the international air tickets and the rest of the fees will be supported by the Confucius Institute Headquarters. For example, there is free accommodation and honorarium every month. You have been to China several times, you know RMB (Chinese currency) exchange value. For half a year or five months learning Chinese in Chinese Universities, the fee is unified according to the Headquarters. For a five month study it is 2500 RMB a month. So, when you exchange that with naira, it is a big sum of money for each month for a student. And For masters, they can get more than 3000 RMB each month. So, we encourage our students to study in a very well treated way. They are equal; African students are equal to all the other international students. They can get honorarium each month, free accommodation, they can enjoy the language learning in China if they pass the HSK examination here in Nigeria.
How many students do you enroll in Nigeria annually?
Take for instance, last year we had 25 that went to different Universities in China while only 11 or 12 went to my University and the rest of the students went to other universities of their choice in the South, North West and North East of China. So, we send our students to different universities.
At least for every three months we have 300 to 500 students in Nigeria. For example, since this January, in 3 weeks, we have got 60 students as starters; new comers for language learning. And our students will stay here at most for two years to get the scholarship but for fast learners, it is one year. Besides, the language scholarship, we also offer scholarship for Taiji; martial art. If you study it quite well, you can apply for Taiji course in Chinese based universities. And if you are interested in Chinese medicine, you can apply for Chinese medicine study and you go to a Chinese medicine university. Last year, we had 4 students who got Taiji scholarship.
We assume that there are some students who may enroll and may not complete their studies if they have some complexities and or for some other personal reasons. Can you tell us how many students graduate annually?
Our programs never end actually. We have our students study here in a way that seems endless because if they did not get scholarship they stay and go on working until the day they can get scholarship. Or they get a good opportunity in the Chinese enterprise. We never give up. We never consider it the end of the study. You can go on if you want to. For example, we resumed last September. The term should last from September to end of February. This is one semester. So, if you finish this term, we name it graduation from this term. Actually, we have graduation ceremony every July because usually in China most of the universities resume in September. In March, we resume again after two weeks holiday, our students come back, they pay for the new Semester and they just go on. Their final goal is either to get the scholarship or work in a Chinese enterprise or whatever their dreams are. We just do it like a cycle. Every five months, from September to February and from March to July. And then September again
Your relationship with the Chinese Consulate in Lagos brings to mind, you are an Educational Ambassador to China. How does this bring economic value to Nigeria and the rest of Africa?
Essentially, we try to work as an ID card for China representing Chinese Education. The general word should be friendship. We hope that we are treated as friends in the first place. And of course, we are teaching, so people just think we are educators. We try our best to be the Ambassadors of Education as well as Ambassadors of Economy because we hope with our efforts we can introduce China as a hub to Nigeria. So, when we are teaching, when we are having some cultural activities no matter whether they are independent or in collaboration with the Chinese Consulate or even the Chinese Embassy. We just think they are representing the government and we are representing the people. We hope that with our efforts we can have a people to people communication. For example, the principal delegation to China, we bring them to schools, to universities, to the society to see the country they want to learn about.