Talking up Mandarin a global undertaking

Updated: 2013-01-02 07:51

By Mike Peters (China Daily)

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If you didn't already know Xu Lin was an important official in China's Education Ministry, you wouldn't guess it from her manner.

Easygoing and casual over a cup of tea at her office, she chats comfortably in English, her second language, about her mission for her mother tongue: to spread the learning of Mandarin across the globe.

Talking up Mandarin a global undertaking

Xu Lin has a mission to spread the learning of Mandarin across the globe. Provided to China Daily 

It's been a banner year for Xu, the director- general of Hanban (The Office of Chinese Language Council International), the parent agency of the Confucius Institutes.

The institutes, which are in 108 countries across the globe, operate in conjunction with various foreign universities to teach Chinese language and culture.

Affiliated universities worldwide sent delegations recently to Beijing for an annual conference. University presidents, chancellors and provosts came to the Chinese capital to hear how Hanban has grown, see what it can offer, and report on their progress and the challenges they have faced teaching Chinese in their own classrooms.

While Xu, 56, is enthusiastic about Hanban's growth, she has found her role as gatekeeper changing. In the first few years, she said, the door was wide open as Hanban eagerly pushed to expand, especially in target areas such as the United States, Canada and Europe, where educational ties were well-established and language programs were strong on both sides.

"Today we have almost 400 Confucius Institutes abroad - and we could have 500 tomorrow, if we had qualified teachers to send," she said. "Many excellent university programs have given us strong applications."

But the next round of countries will be harder to support, she said, because Hanban is still building programs with many less commonly spoken languages, such as Swahili and Farsi, and even widely spoken tongues of the Indian subcontinent that are not common in China.

"So now, instead of holding the door open wide, we are only holding the door like this," she says, bringing her outstretched hands closer together, "until we have more capability".

That's not news in academic centers such as Beijing Foreign Studies University. BFSU's president, Chen Yulu, recently told China Daily that the current number of languages taught there cannot meet future needs. "We plan to cover 89 less-commonly taught languages by 2020," he said.

The need for teachers has prompted some creative and bold thinking. Xu and India's Ambassador to China, S. Jaishankar, recently announced that India will send 300 teachers to Beijing for six months to learn a rudimentary level of Mandarin. Those teachers will then return to India to launch Confucius Institutes at multiple universities across the county.

"Of course, six months is not enough time for teachers to master the language," Xu said, but it will enable them to teach basic, introductory Mandarin. Teachers who are successful will return to Beijing for more study and training. There are also pragmatic concerns behind the plan: Longer training upfront will delay getting the Indian classrooms off the ground, and better-qualified Mandarin teachers can quickly drift away to private-sector jobs in India.

"We need to make sure we are creating sustainable programs for the long term," Xu said. "Or we will just be starting over again next year and the year after."

As the face of the Confucius Institute around the world, Xu travels about three months of the year, most recently to Stellenbosch University in South Africa. A Hanban conference there included delegates from more than 30 Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms for students below university-level, from 26 countries and regions in Africa as well as 11 Chinese partners.

While Hanban's mission aims to reach foreign countries, it has raised its profile on the home front under Xu's watch, with regular weekend classes in Beijing for diplomatic personnel stationed in the capital.

The most recent classes, held at Hanban's headquarters in Beijing, were taught at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels, as some embassy personnel returned for a second and third round of lessons. And just like at the Confucius Institutes abroad, the diplomat's classes include exposure to culture beyond the language, including one afternoon devoted to a formal tea ceremony.

"I have wanted the Confucius Institutes to feel less like a 7-11 and more like a superstore," she said, grinning.

Talking up Mandarin a global undertaking

A Chinese calligraphy class in Togo Confucius Institute at University of Lome has attracted great interest in learning Chinese.

Xu came to her role as a champion of language indirectly. A chemist by training, she earned a master's degree in economics from Beijing Normal University that took her on a path to the World Bank, where she negotiated soft loans for education in China. That gave her lots of face time with foreign experts and administrators, and opened her eyes to the challenges of making Eastern and Western cultures work together. After China's surging economic growth pushed the country above the threshold for such loans, Xu went to Vancouver as an education counselor at the consulate-general there for five years.

Then her old boss at the Education Ministry suggested that the fledgling Hanban could use her administrative experience, and Xu found herself with a brand-new challenge.

Although constantly on the go, she said she's been very happy at Hanban. There is both pride and patriotism in the mission, she said, and it's a pleasure "to work in an environment where people talk from the heart, not just from the head".