The Belt and Road initiative is not just about trade, it’s also a cultural project that makes China a new cultural center.
The rise of the Chinese language
The development of the Belt and Road Initiative has accelerated the appeal of the Chinese language. The Chinese language is no longer considered a rare language. The 539 Confucius Institute-network now covers the entire planet with a presence in more than 150 countries, and more institutes are planned. But attending the Confucius Institute is not the only way to learn Chinese. Several states in Africa, the Middle East, and Russia are planning to make Chinese a compulsory languague at school.
Furthermore, more and more foreign students, especially those from BRI states go to China to study. China is today the second world university destination after the United States.
The Chinese language is very attractive because of the many opportunities it offers, especially through the BRI. The development of new Chinese companies in Asia and Africa is pushing local students to study this language in order to have good jobs in China-supported projects.
But, it should be noted that it is not a one-way-exchange. While the world seeks to speak Chinese, China wants to learn new languages, including local languages.
Learning the Pacific languages
A recent article by Zhang Denghua and Setope So’oa’emalelagi reviews the teaching of several Pacifc languages at the Beijing Foreign Studies Universiy. Chinese and foreign students alike will soon be able to study Pacific languages such as Tok-misin, Maori, Samoan, Fijian, or Tongan. These languages are spoken very little outside Pacific islands. Moreover, for most of them, these languages are not “necessary” for trade between China and the Pacific states, since they coexist with English, which is very widespread there. However, this experience is interesting and reflects several phenomena. It shows that China is showing increasing interest in the Pacific region, and wants to increase the participation of Pacific island states in the BRI. Moreover, this initiative will create strong ties between China and Oceania : several Pacific Island teachers will be hired by Chinese universities in Beijing. Finally, the development of Pacific language learning in China should enable Chinese companies to better adapt to local markets.
Of course, one may wonder if the demand among Chinese students will be sufficient for learning Oceanic languages. But China’s bet is also to become a major academic and cultural center of Pacific Studies like Australia or the United States.
… and Africa.
Africa is of course a major continent for the construction of the BRI ; to conclude new partnerships, China is developing an ambitious cultural and linguistic policy. Firstly, we can note that many Chinese students are still interested by learning French (and Portuguese) due to projects in Africa.
There are now more French speakers in Africa than in France. Although French has become the mother tongue of millions of Africans, its situation depends on one country to another. Thus French is spoken very widely in some economic centers like Abidjan in Ivory Coast, but it remains above all the language of education. It is also a vehicular language enabling exchanges between different linguistic communities. French has thus been chosen as the sole official language in 11 African countries to ensure coexistence between different peoples, and shares this status of official language in ten other African countries, most often with a local language.
These local languages can be spoken by several millions of inhabitants, such as Kikongo in the Republic of Congo. Although French would surely keep its lingua franca status in many French-speaking African states, local languages will gain more power and influence. The development of new technologies will also help these languages to be more used in education.
China is betting on African languages. Since 2017, Comorian and Ndebele (Zimbabwe) are taught in Beijing. China wants to meet a demand formiulated by Africa and to ease the development of Chinee companies in African countries by adopting local cultures. It is also a way to make Beijing, a new major center of African studies.
The BRI is therefore an « exchange initiative ». Although the BRI promotes globalization, and encourages the study of Chinese, it also supports the preservation and development of certain local languages.
For Europe, and especially France, the major challenge will be to continue to support the French language in Africa, while allowing the development of local languages, so as not to weaken relations between France and Africa.