Monday, December 18, 2006

Confucius and the Language Institute

By Peter McKenzie-Brown Chiang Mai University’s Language Institute building officially opened today, with a traditional Thai blessing. A clutch of ochre-clad monks blessed the building with Pali and Thai chants and other rituals. (Much as Latin is the classical language of Catholicism, Pali is the classical language of Theravada Buddhism, to which almost all Thai Buddhists subscribe.) When the religious celebration was over, there was a brief but dignified secular ceremony to open the ultra-modern, 60-million baht complex. Among the small number of dignitaries were university president Dr. Pongsak Angkasith and Dr. Tanun Anumanrajadhon, chairman of the institute’s board. The ceremony was well organized, brief and pleasant. The voices of choice were English and Thai. In addition to 35 air-conditioned classrooms, Chiang Mai University's Language Institute has a 200-seat theatre, two 100-seat lecture halls and two other large lecture halls with 60 seats each. The complex has a specialized language library, two language labs and a self-access learning centre. Confucius Institute: Then it was time for the opening of the Confucius Institute, an affiliated organization. Confucius Institutes are China’s answer to the British Council, Alliance Française and Germany’s Goethe Institutes. Their purpose is to spread the study of Mandarin and Chinese culture. The main sponsor of Chiang Mai’s Confucius Institute is the government of China. Other participants include Yunnan Normal University and China’s National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language. So far there are few of these institutes. The first was established in Uzbekistan in 2004. A year ago, according to a published report, there were 25, located in the United States, Europe and Asia. Today, there are more 123, and they are in 49 countries and regions on every populated continent. In 2006, China set one up every three and a half days, on average. The Confucius Institute pulled out all the stops for this event. The Chinese ambassador to Thailand, Zhang Jiuhuan, spoke at length about the purposes of the Institute, and a mandarin from Beijing – Zhao Guocheng, elaborated. Then the chairman of Yunnan Normal’s academic committee talked warmly about his university’s partnership with CMU. To make a point, perhaps, the only languages spoken were Mandarin and Thai. The ironic exception occurred when the ambassador ended his speech with an unaccented, perfectly nuanced “Thank you very much,” in English; a slip of the tongue. When the talking was over, curtains fell away and a traditional dragon dance began. Great Power: One could not help but be impressed with the energy, drive and determination the Chinese applied to this official opening - qualities available in abundance in that emerging superpower. The Confucius Institutes are clearly an important part of Chinese policy, and the country is using its extraordinary ability to get things done to push these organizations as far and as quickly as they can. I saw the importance the Chinese placed on the opening of this start-up educational organization as emblematic of a Chinese challenge to the dominance of English as the global language. As that country transforms itself into the world’s second economic superpower, it seems to want to develop the linguistic infrastructure that befits a great power. According to Michael Vatikiotis, “China's national office for teaching Chinese as a foreign language, which runs the Confucius Institutes, will provide textbooks for schools in Southeast Asia with the catchy title ‘Happy Chinese.’” That same national office believes there will be 100 million people worldwide learning Chinese as a foreign language by the year 2010. Vatikiotis adds, “All of this is a sign of expanding Chinese soft power. But what are the implications of the spread of Chinese language and culture? It's a more important question in a region like Southeast Asia where as many as half the people living in urban areas like Bangkok are of Chinese descent.” It is an important question indeed. In a way, it epitomizes the struggles within and among languages that are taking place around the world, and which this blog has discussed in some detail elsewhere. For Chiang Mai University, today's celebrations helped open a building. For China, they helped open the world.
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