Learning Chinese

chinese class

The recent announcement that Sindh provincial government has decided to make Chinese language compulsory for students across the province after class 6 has brought out interesting reactions. Ironically, some of the people who most loudly complain about foreign influence are also the quickest to praise the decision. My reaction was closer to Dawn:

Our youth are vastly undereducated and have little time to spend on subjects that will not improve their ability to contribute to, or benefit from, Pakistan’s economy. Making Chinese available as an option would be an admirable step — as long as it does not drain resources from more fundamental subjects — but one hopes it will not be made mandatory based on a personal whim or the desire to make friendly overtures to a foreign country.

Education needs an overhaul, but the answer isn’t trying to learn the language of the next people that we will work for – the answer is improving the education system so that we are working for ourselves. Obviously, that doesn’t mean that Chinese should not be offered as a course, but it does mean that making Chinese ‘compulsory’ is misguided.

Urdu and English should be compulsory for all grades. Urdu because it is the language by which news and information is transmitted across the nation. TV programmes, newspapers, books – a fluency in Urdu is required to understand these. English because it is the international language of business.

I can already hear the cries from those who are impatient to ring the death bell of American power. But please, let’s not act hastily. The US may be suffering, but it is still the largest and most powerful economy of the world. Even China recognises this.

“The US economy is highly resilient and has a strong capacity of self repair. We believe the US economy will achieve even better development as it rises to challenges,” Vice President Xi told a roundtable of American and Chinese business leaders.

That’s why the Chinese are planning to increase, not decrease, their business dealings with the Americans. China may be rising as a world economic power, but it has a long way to go to catch up with America. And let’s also not forget that America and China are not the only two economic powers on the planet.

The current group of rising economies are often referred to with the name ‘BRIC’ for Brazil, Russia, India, China. Some economists predict that India or Brazil may even pass China. Should students be compelled to learn Portuguese, the language of Brazil? Or Russian? Or Hindi? What about the other large and growing economies like Germany? Should we all learn German?

No, of course not. Actually, this attempt at guessing what the next language of business will be was settled centuries ago when the official language of business became English. Whether you are doing business in America, Europe, Brazil, Russia, Pakistan…or even China – English will get you the job.

This doesn’t mean that no other languages are necessary. Actually, learning the local language is important if you are planning to do business in a particular location. For example, if you are going to be working in the field of mining in Brazil, it would be highly recommended to learn English and Portuguese both. If you are going to be doing most of your business in China, Chinese will be a great addition to your CV.

Having spent a couple of years in school in Sindh, I know how most of the students feel about extra language classes. We had the option of either taking Sindhi or Arabic and I chose to take each one. Arabic came easy to me (albeit only the reading part) obviously because of religious education and from reading the Quran from an early age. But I had no such luck with Sindhi. The script seemed weird to me (even though it is from right to left just like Urdu) and the pronunciation of words was extremely hard. Since I had the option at that time to switch to Arabic, I wasted no time. However, my point is this: I did not enjoy learning the language, I never used it even while I was there, and whatever Sindhi I had learned in bits and pieces was of no use to me because Sindhi is not spoken in Punjab where my family moved to later on. Sindhi would be a great asset to show off on my resume, however it has little use for me because I do not intend on living in interior Sindh where the mastery of the language would come in handy. Same is the case with learning Chinese.

For this reason, the most effective reform would be to offer languages such as Chinese, Portuguese, Russian, and Japanese as optional tracks for students who are interested in those regions. But all students would be instructed in both Urdu and English – and studies should include more than just rote memorisation of grammar. Urdu and English both have rich histories of poetry and literature which studying can help to not only understand the language, but the culture also.

The decision by Sindh government is surely well intentioned, but it is also misguided. Learning Chinese is not going to magically create jobs. If the decisions can re-start a discussion of education reforms, though, it will help make the necessary changes to give our students the skills they need to compete at the top levels in the world economy.

2 thoughts on “Learning Chinese

  1. Well we could not learn URDU and English & Arabic properly yet. However I think it is a good move, but it should not be compulsory. Already we have more than 1 language subjects compulsory. It should be elective.

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