On what the Confucius Institutes network adds to the linguistic landscape of Europe
Once every so many weeks academic debate in the West is stirred by discussion on the role of Confucius Institutes in colleges and universities abroad. Most recently there was the joint urge of U.S. and Canadian professors to universities to cut ties with Confucius Institutes unless the agreement between the university and Hanban is revised. There is no need to list the common allegations to Confucius Institutes. Confucius Institutes are deemed to threaten academic freedom, they propagate a homogenous, politically censored version of Chinese culture and impose their mandatory rule or language, with Mandarin Chinese as the only form of Chinese allowed to be taught. Here is not the proper place to enter into this debate. Anyone involved in such a debate would have his or her own agenda to defend. I probably would make no exception to this as a local director of a Confucius Institute, the Confucius Institute of Howest college in Brugge, Belgium to be more precise.
One of the striking things of this debate is that, for most of the time it is carried in English. This is perhaps so much a self-evident observation that it may need some explanation. While it is true that English is a global language and thus only natural the medium in which we will find most of the critics of the Confucius Institutes voice their opinion, English is not the only language in the world. The total number of English speakers is lower than the sum of all people speaking other languages. It is hard to estimate the number of articles in newspapers, letters and news reports that have been devoted to criticising the proliferation of Confucius Institutes in other languages of the world than English. However, the fact is that the dominant tone in the debate is English, a dominant language itself. Might it be that the dominance of English is at stake somewhere faced with this sudden surge of Chinese? It might well be as we will see.
Let me first explain about the situation which I am writing from, which is Belgium. Known well for diamond and chocolate, Belgium is probably less known for its complex political and linguistic situation. The country in the heart of Europe was created in the 19th century as a sort of buffer between surrounding hostile powers. It united two ethnic groups, each with its own language. Slightly overgeneralising, in the South you had people speaking French, and in the North people spoke Flemish, which was in fact a group of dialects. After the Second World War the Flemish dialects and the language spoken in Holland (Dutch) realised that they were actually one language. Three fifths of the Belgian population speaks Dutch, exactly the same language as in Holland. Yet many of them might tell you that what they speak is “Flemish” as a way to express that they are not Netherland’s citizens. Within Belgium there is a clear line of divide between the Dutch (or “Flemish”) speaking part in the North and the French speaking part in the South of the country. Political issues in Belgium are often expressed in terms of language. It almost seems as if every political debate in Belgium can be regarded as the Flemish speaking part saying this and the French claiming the opposite. The end of Belgium has been predicted many times but for some strange reason the marriage has withstood the test of time for almost two centuries already.
Flemings have a strong reputation for languages. From primary school pupils study French as compulsory second language. In secondary school, English and German are taught as third and fourth languages. Many pupils in secondary schools also take Latin and classical Greek. Belgian law allows schools to add even more languages to the secondary school curriculum including the languages of all 23 member states of the EU, Russian, Hindi,… Chinese was not yet on this list but has recently been added. One would think that secondary schools massively turn to Chinese as the language of the future. The truth is that since the introduction of Chinese few schools in Belgium have embraced Chinese. It might be that the polyglottism of the Belgians rather than making the Belgians rush to Chinese is an obstacle to the spread of Chinese. It is more of an exciting thing to discover Chinese if you grew up in a virtually monolingual environment and the only language you have been taught at school is say English or French. If you have five languages already Chinese is much less a novelty. In the end, Chinese undoubtedly will find its way to the hearts and the heads of young Belgians as well, but that will take time and work.
Once every year Hanban convokes a meeting of European Confucius Institutes. These annual meetings are attended by directors of local Confucius Institutes and leaders of Hanban Headquarters and constitute Hanban’s most direct way to instruct Confucius Institutes of its latest policies. It is also an occasion to learn about “best practices” and for “excellent” Confucius Institutes to share their experience with Confucius Institutes that are still trying to establish themselves.
At the latest meeting of Confucius Institutes (in Dublin) the Vienna Confucius Institute reported on the way it had organised the Chinese Language Day (汉语日) in September 2013. The idea of a holding Chinese Language Day was launched during prime minister Li Keqiang’s visit to Germany in May 2013, on which occasion he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the “Chinese-German Language Year 2013/2014” (Chinesisch-Deutsches Sprachesjahr 2013/2014).