Confucius Institutes face uphill battle in development

There are 82 Confucius Institutes and 39 Confucius Classrooms in 31 countries and regions in Asia. Despite great achievements, Confucius Institutes still face serious challenges. For example, there is the question of how to help Chinese volunteer teachers better adapt to the foreign environment, especially the living environment in developing countries. How can volunteers integrate traditional Chinese education standards with local culture? How can volunteers dispel misgivings of certain countries and let Chinese language teaching meet the growing local demand?

At the “2011 Conference of Confucius Institutes in Asia” held in Taegu, South Korea, Xu Lin, director-general of the Office of Chinese Language Council International, also known as Hanban, said that Asia is faced with the problem of uneven development. There are developed countries, such as Japan and South Korea, and also developing countries, such as Cambodia and Sri Lanka.

Certain developing countries are plagued by poor education conditions and teacher shortages. Furthermore, there are a wide variety of languages and cultures in Asia, which makes it very difficult to compile broad applicable Chinese language textbooks.

Language differences

In order to meet the growing worldwide demand for Chinese language teachers, Hanban sent 17,000 Chinese teachers and volunteers abroad from 2005 to 2010. They have made great contributions to the development of Confucius Institutes. Xu said that they have to handle language and cultural differences, and learn to endure loneliness when working abroad.

Shao Yiwu, a cultural counselor with the Chinese embassy in Indonesia, said that there are mainly three problems facing the development of Confucius Institutes based on what he saw in Indonesia. First, most Chinese language teachers and volunteers sent abroad cannot speak the local language, which inevitably affects their teaching style and method. Second, the work of the teachers and volunteers is assisted by various local Chinese associations, and they are scattered throughout the country, making it hard to form an effective management system. Third, their income is relatively low. Certain teachers and volunteers work and live in poor areas, but are not compensated through higher payments.

China has sent the most Chinese language teachers to Thailand, with over 1,000 Chinese language teachers sent to the country every year. Ran Chao, an employee at Hanban’s representative office in Thailand, said that most teachers sent abroad are fresh graduates who have never been to foreign countries. They need time to adapt to the new and unfamiliar environment. They are sent to universities, middle schools and elementary schools in various parts of Thailand, and some schools are located in the outskirts or countryside. Cultural differences, language barriers and hard living conditions make the work and lives of these teachers more difficult than they thought.

Cultivation of teachers

Xu said that China faces three challenges in cultivating local teachers. The first is the impact of the International financial crisis. The second is the inability of China’s domestic universities to foster sufficient foreign Chinese language teachers. The third is the differences in culture, teaching methods and language systems. These challenges make it difficult to foster qualified teachers locally.

Xu said that to solve these issues, the Confucius Institutes plan to first dispatch domestic teachers to teach overseas, stabilize the number of the Chinese language teachers and increase the support for the training of local teachers in an attempt to lift the number of local, full-time Chinese language teachers to a certain scale over the next 10 years. Shao suggested that to solve this issue, China should step up the cultivation of foreign Chinese language teachers at home, strengthen related training and increase the number of national scholarship quotas and the amount of the scholarship.

Ran said that Hanban has long been aware of this issue during its cooperation with Thailand. China and Thailand jointly initiated a program of cultivating local Chinese language teachers in August 2008. The three-year program will dispatch three groups of Thai teachers to learn related Chinese language courses in China. The Thai teachers are recruited by Thailand’s education ministry and include university graduates selected by the education ministry for specific posts as well as existing Chinese language teachers. These trainees will become Chinese language teachers in the basic education field after they return from China, further easing the tight supply of Chinese language teachers.

Compiling textbooks

It is difficult to compile Chinese textbooks because of the differences in culture and language systems. For instance, students in some countries have different traditional customs to ask questions in the classroom such as “What is the occupation of your parents?” or “How old are you?” Therefore, some proposed that textbooks should be localized. However, some others believe that Spain’s Cervantes Institute and Germany’s Goethe institute both compile textbooks according to their own customs in order to help foreigners learn and understand their culture. Hanban is still researching whether to localize textbooks or adhere to China’s traditional culture.

According to sources, the China-Thailand cooperation on compiling teaching material has a relatively long history. Currently, Thailand has listed basic Chinese textbooks that were jointly published by China and Thailand in its national teaching materials system and teaching programs. The series of textbooks titled “Experiencing Chinese” was jointly compiled and published by China’s Higher Education Press and the Basic Education Commission under Thailand’s Ministry of Education. They highlight the local characteristics of Thailand and have entered in primary and secondary classrooms in Thailand. Thailand’s experience shows that the localization of Chinese teaching materials should become a trend, and Hanban and some colleges in China should conduct systematic studies on this issue.

Relieving concerns

Chinese language teaching is about spreading Chinese language, history and culture. The promotion of Chinese is still sensitive to a certain degree in some neighboring countries due to the impact of certain historical issues. According to sources, although Chinese language learning has seen an upsurge in India and Vietnam in recent years and various colleges and language schools also offer Chinese courses, the Confucius Institute has not yet been able to establish itself in these two neighboring countries.
According to sources, as various colleges in Vietnam offer many Chinese courses and many foreign language training centers in Vietnam also offer Chinese courses, it is very convenient for Vietnamese youth to learn Chinese. Therefore, there is no urgent demand for Confucius Institutes in Vietnam. However, some universities that have a department of Chinese language hope to cooperate with China to establish Confucius Institutes as soon as possible in order to promote their Chinese language teaching level and cultivate senior Chinese language teaching talent. Meanwhile, they also hope to obtain China’s financial support through the cooperation.

Officials from the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of India said that currently, the embassy has received dozens of phone calls from local citizens asking about Chinese courses almost every week, and some people have also asked about the Confucius Institute. However, India’s official attitude towards the proposal of establishing Confucius Institutes in various major educational institutions has been negative.

The establishment of Confucius Institutes is actually a form of public diplomacy. The Confucius Institute can enhance the international influence of China as well as foreigners’ understanding towards China. The Confucius Institute can be considered as the one of the best platforms for “people to people” exchanges between China and foreign countries.

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