South Africa has 11 official languages. Why the fuss over learning Mandarin?

Why We Wrote This

Learning another language can feel adventurous, or even liberating. But in South Africa, where generations of students were forced to study colonizers’ languages, new Mandarin classes have sparked debate. The country has 11 official languages of its own. Should schools focus on those first?

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Chen Ruoxin, a recent Chinese college graduate employed by the Confucius Institute, teaches a Mandarin language class at Willowridge High School in Pretoria, South Africa.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

Roughly 1 billion people speak Mandarin Chinese. South Africa would like to add a few more – or a lot.

Four years ago, the government announced it had approved teaching Mandarin as an optional course at public schools. As ties with China grow, it’s a key language to introduce to students, advocates note. And with support from Beijing, it’s relatively cheap.

But South Africa itself has 11 official languages, and Mandarin has stirred up debate about the value of studying foreign languages at the expense of the country’s own. Amid China’s brisk and often brusque rise in influence in Africa, some see echoes of the past, when generations of South African students were forced to learn European languages. Even today, many argue African languages have second-class citizenship. “We are still in that project – of building a nation, of building our social cohesion,” says Nomusa Cembi, from the country’s largest teachers’ union.

Boitshepo, a 15-year-old student, sees Mandarin in a different light. “When you meet people from a different place, the respectful thing to do is to speak to them in their own language rather than make them learn yours,” she says. “And there’s so many people in the world who speak Chinese.”

Fifteen-year-old Boitshepo already knows the word for “rabbit” in four languages.

There’s the English, of course, and then there’s konyn (Afrikaans), unogwaja (Zulu), and mmutla (Sesotho).

And now, on a bright autumn afternoon in a sun-drenched classroom in South Africa’s capital, she is coaxing her brain to make room for a fifth version of rabbit too. 

Tùzǐ,” she repeats, trying to mimic the rise and fall of the tones her Mandarin teacher has just pronounced. Tù - zǐ.

Like many people growing up in South Africa, which has 11 official languages, Boitshepo sees learning a new one in practical terms. 

“When you meet people from a different place, the respectful thing to do is to speak to them in their own language rather than make them learn yours,” she says. “And there’s so many people in the world who speak Chinese.”

But outside the walls of this classroom, a far more complicated debate is taking place about the value of teaching Mandarin to young South Africans.

Some – including South Africa’s Department of Basic Education – see offering optional Mandarin classes with the same pragmatic eyes as Boitshepo. It’s the world’s most widely spoken language, they note, and South Africa has strong and growing economic and political ties to Beijing. And with the Chinese government offering up teachers and other educational materials, the cost for the government is lower than it would be for almost any other language. (Education departments in Uganda, Kenya, and Zambia seem to agree – with the help of their local Chinese embassies, all three are currently rolling out Mandarin as a foreign language too).

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Students practice Mandarin during a language class at Willowridge High School in Pretoria, South Africa. In South Africa, which has 11 official languages, critics of teaching Mandarin argue that schools should prioritize teaching the country's own languages.

But for the language’s detractors, teaching Chinese comes laden with dark symbolism. To them, it echoes a painful past across the continent, when generations of students were forced to learn European languages at the expense of their own mother tongues. And they see the rise of the language in schools as a proxy for China’s brisk and often brusque rise in influence in Africa more broadly.

“When colonizers came, the first thing they did was to make us communicate in the language of the master,” says Nomusa Cembi, media officer for the South African Democratic Teachers Union, the largest teachers’ union in the country, which opposes the teaching of Mandarin in public schools. “That’s been our history. So to us, this feels like another form of colonization.”

For Ms. Cembi, like many South Africans, her earliest experiences of language learning took place against the backdrop of apartheid. In the mid-1970s, when she was beginning primary school, students across the country rose up in a massive wave of protests against being taught in Afrikaans – the Dutch-based creole used by the white government. After hundreds of student protesters were killed by police in Soweto, a township outside Johannesburg, the demonstrations exploded, touching off a new protest movement that would not end until apartheid was brought down a decade and a half later.

After apartheid ended, South Africa adopted 11 of its most commonly spoken languages as official languages, each afforded equal status.

“Recognising the historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages of our people, the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages,” the 1996 constitution explained.

But despite those promises, many say African languages still have second-class citizenship here, relegated to a “second language” in almost every school after third grade (that is, all African languages except for Afrikaans, the first language of South Africa’s mixed-race community known as coloureds and many white South Africans). Most educated South Africans can read and write far better in English or Afrikaans than any other language – even if that language is their mother tongue.

“We are still in that project – of building a nation, of building our social cohesion,” says Ms. Cembi. “Rather than teaching Chinese, we need to be focusing on teaching each other our own languages.”

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Students attend a Mandarin class at Willowridge High School in Pretoria, South Africa. Willowridge is one of fewer than 150 South African public schools that now offer Mandarin classes in collaboration with the Chinese government.

But the Department of Basic Education here, as well as other proponents of the language, say the fear of Chinese influence is overblown. 

In 2015, when the department announced it had approved the teaching of Mandarin, the plan called for training 200 local teachers per year. Four years later, however, fewer than 150 public schools have begun to offer the language – of approximately 25,000 in the country – and many teachers are Chinese. The department did not reply to multiple requests for comment about how many local teachers have been trained.

Even at schools that offer Mandarin, meanwhile, it is not tested as part of the national high school exit exams, placing it below the two South African languages in which a student must display proficiency in order to graduate.

For instance, at Willowridge High School, where Boitshepo studies, Mandarin classes meet after school hours, once a week, for an hour and a half. Their instructor is a bubbly recent university graduate from China named Chen Ruoxin, who is employed by the Confucius Institute. (The Beijing-funded culture and language institutes have come under increasing scrutiny on campuses in several Western countries over concerns about transparency and stifling academic debate.) She laughs easily, doesn’t assign homework, and says her main goal is for her students to “learn the language so they can appreciate the culture behind it and know more about the world.”

For China, language teachers like Ms. Chen – who says she sees her classes as “making an exchange” between cultures – are ideal ambassadors of a country working actively to soften its sharp image globally. In many African countries, for instance, China has a dubious reputation among local populations for extracting natural resources and meddling in media and government.

“In the last decade, China has been trying to put on a softer face to the world,” says Yu Shan Wu, a research associate at the Africa-China Reporting Project at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and an expert on South Africa-China relations. Cultural diplomacy – particularly via language – is one obvious way to do that. 

At Willowridge, the five students in Ms. Chen’s intermediate Mandarin classes are excited recipients of that diplomacy. They speak gleefully about one day studying abroad in China or going into business with Chinese colleagues.

“I love the culture and the language. It’s really beautiful,” says a ninth grader named Lethabo. “And the dumplings. I also really like the dumplings.”

An eighth grader named Saarah is even more matter-of-fact. “A fifth of the world speaks Mandarin,” she says. “Sooner or later, we’ll all have to learn this language.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.