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The Importance of Learning Chinese in Zambia

Emmanuel Matambo
Confucius Institute Brighton College

Zambians who have the opportunity should learn Mandarin, fast. In 2019, the Zambian government announced that beginning in 2020, Mandarin Chinese will form part of the Zambian high school curriculum. This move has provoked criticism from those who deem it a sycophantic move by the Zambian government. The accusation finds merit, in part, because the Zambian government is not seen to be introducing Mandarin in good faith, but rather to mollify China, a country to which it is deeply indebted. According to the Jubilee Debt Campaign, a UK-based charity, by 2017 Zambia owed a third of its $9.4bn foreign debt to China. This figure was conservative compared to the $6.4bn established by the China Africa Research Initiative (CARI), of Johns Hopkins University. According to CARI statistics, 73.5 percent of Zambia's $8.7bn debt is owed to China. These figures do not bode well for perceptions of Sino-Zambian relations, especially among civil society organizations leery of China's growing presence in Zambia.

In 2018, when the Times of Zambia, a state-owned newspaper, published a story in Chinese, there was an uproar on social media with some calling Zambia "Chambia." However, publishing in Chinese was premature, given the small number of local Chinese speakers. The government's explanation about wanting to reach a broader readership by publishing news reports in Mandarin was therefore out of place. Still, it signaled the growing presence of China in Zambia.

Against this backdrop, it is possible that introducing Mandarin is a gambit by Zambia to please its debtor. What is ignored, however, is the advantage of learning Mandarin. Proficiency in Mandarin can offer Africans a view into China's culture. It has the potential of helping Africans better understand China's worldview and its impact on both Zambia and Africa as a whole. Zambians who have the interest, means, and time would do well to study the language.

China is playing and will continue to play, a seminal role in influencing Zambian politics and economics. Former Zambian President, Michael Sata, attracted significant political support by mobilizing anti-Chinese sentiment. Despite this, China's presence in Zambia has grown. China's "going out" policy has incentivized Chinese nationals to emigrate to different parts of the world, Zambia included. Arran Elcoate estimated that there are at least 100,000 Chinese citizens in Zambia. This approach is different from the 1970s when China sent nationals to Zambia to build the Tanzania-Zambia Railway, after which they were enjoined to return to China. Zambia's relationship with China has recently become more than just interaction at the state level. This increasing social and commercial interaction prompts those involved to have a point of entry into each other's worldviews, and language is one of the most effective ways of doing so. The Chinese who migrated will gain more from their experience by learning Zambia's culture and indigenous languages. Similarly, Zambians who interact with the Chinese could take advantage of the opportunity to learn Mandarin.

In 2004, China launched Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese language and culture abroad actively, often established in universities. In Africa, they have established 59 Institutes. Included in its cultural outreach are China's efforts to provide educational opportunities for Africans in China, where language again plays a critical role. As a leading player in technology, China has been generous in providing scholarships for Africans to study in fields such as digital economics, agricultural technology, electronics, and automation. However, scholarship beneficiaries that go to study in China are often limited in where to study to institutions that have English as a medium of instruction. Competence in Mandarin could expand the choices of institutions where scholars can study.

Despite the benefits of learning Mandarin, there will still be moments of discomfort for Zambians, especially if learning Mandarin is seen to be detrimental to indigenous Zambian languages. That said, language acquisition is not a zero-sum activity in which those who learn a new language forfeit their own. There was a time when colonizers subjected Africans to an attenuated educational system tailored mostly to menial careers while reserving for themselves an exclusive education system considered more global-looking. Today, refusing to learn a language that is spoken by more than 1.3 billion people, and whose political and economic clout will only increase, is to confine oneself to the limited knowledge that the colonialists wanted for Africa. Africa would once again lag as the rest of the world marches forward.

Emmanuel Matambo was previously a Post-Doctorate Researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, he is also a Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar for the fall 2019 term.

About the Author

Emmanuel Matambo

Emmanuel Matambo

Former Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar;
Research Director, Centre for Africa-China Studies, University of Johannesburg
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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more