Chinese are thinking far ahead with the Zulu course

Word Zulu language printed on white paper macro
Word Zulu language printed on white paper macro
Image: 123RF/Agata Gładykowska

As the owner of a company that creates and deploys interactive and data-driven digital education content for English second-language students, the recent story on how a Chinese university has started offering Zulu as a course piqued my interest.

The Beijing Foreign Studies University now has a department of Zulu that promotes one of SA's 11 official languages to Chinese undergraduate students in order to strengthen ties between the two countries.

According to one of the academics involved in the programme, Mthuli Buthelezi, the department has even developed the first Zulu-Chinese textbook and dictionary, to be used by both Zulu and Chinese-speaking students to develop a better understanding between the two cultures.

At first glance, and given the current controversial debate around English-instruction and African home-languages, I wondered how we can weave a global language tapestry and still preserve and enrich local languages across the continent, or in any emerging market economy, especially those earmarked for rapid growth?

At a dinner held in Tshwane last month, basic education minister Angie Motshega declared that September 17 would be celebrated annually as "South African Chinese Language Day".

Uganda and Kenya have followed suit, constructing Mandarin classes for their schools.

The teaching of Mandarin has been criticised by academics and linguistics professionals who argue that "South Africa must fix its existing system first", before considering the introduction of the langueage into the schools system.

This got me thinking. The issue with many emerging market education systems is that too often the voices coming out of them argue "just fix the existing system first" as though new programmes, curriculum expansions and technology transformations are not intent on doing that.

These dialogues imply that the fixes in our current system are just a few seconds away from successful completion.

If only it were that simple. We must recognise that the world is moving at such a pace that not one of the proposed "existing system" fixes will be relevant by the time they are implemented (and that's if they can be implemented at all).

In other words, if South African children are being taught in English as the only alternative first language from grade 4 onwards, what is the reason for this?

If the intention is to give every school-going child a tablet, to what extent can it be ensured they benefit from this? And if these learners are going to be taught how to code, why ultimately is this being undertaken?

At the 2018 China-Africa Cooperation Forum, the country announced it would be providing US$60bn billion in financial support to the continent, and is clearly looking in Africa's direction as a sensible and logical economic choice for itself in terms of the continent's natural resources and expansion of its access to markets.

What, therefore, is then obvious is that the establishment of a Zulu department at a Chinese university is not coincidental.

What we can learn from this is that we should brace ourselves for a South African education policy that looks to the holistic future needs of our students - not only of the here and now - but with a clear goal of how our existing system will benefit our youth today for their professional paths tomorrow.

*Dr Varady is the CEO of edtech company, IDEA Digital Education, which creates interactive digital content for students, parents and teachers globally

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