The language of Confucius

by Terence MacNamee

Learning Chinese has become the latest fashion in the Western world. Even public school systems want to teach it. High enrollment in courses is boasted about by educational bureaucrats and teachers. Whether Western youngsters who take these courses in such large numbers will actually learn the language to any real level of proficiency remains to be seen.

I have seen such fashions come and go over the years in Canada – English Canada, to be precise – and I have always had to wonder: if the kids have so much trouble learning French, a related language, how are they going to learn Chinese or Japanese, an exotic challenge in comparison? Well, at least the enshrinement of Chinese in the school curriculum is of some use to the Chinese-Canadian community, enabling them to keep up their language among the younger generation. This is far cry from the days when you could hear elementary teachers trying to badger Chinese parents to stop speaking Chinese at home so the kids would learn English. We seem to have come a long way.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government’s pet soft-power project, the Confucius institutes, are a growing phenomenon. The institutes establish themselves in universities, colleges and school systems. Cash-strapped institutions are on the whole keen to take the money and support offered, and set up a Confucius institute on campus. There are now 350 of them around the world. It has all the makings of a new industry – though it’s only a drop in the bucket compared to the ESL industry in Asia.

Bashing Confucius institutes seems to have become an industry too. There is never any shortage of academics and commentators to condemn the institutes as a sinister plot by the Chinese to take over the world.

Shying away from all the controversy, some universities and other partners that were keen at the outset have backed off. In Canada, one could mention McMaster University and the Toronto School Board. Canadian university professors have condemned the institutes too, in the name of “academic freedom” and the precedence taken by “official propaganda” over “scholarly review” (though the latter can be as tyrannical a force for group-think as the former).

There is a lot of cold-war hysteria going on: fears of spying, for one thing, or mind control, and the creation of sinister fifth columns in the shadow of the hammer and sickle.

This has to raise a smile. Do other governments not use cultural and language institutes to make themselves look good and even have a listening post in each foreign country? It sounds like a smart thing for them to do. It even sounds like a good idea for both East and West. Not a perfect idea, but one that can be improved on with experience. If we could get past the hysteria, it might just turn out to be a win-win situation.