What’s Motshekga’s Mandarin plan?

Picture this: Mandarin has more than 80 000 characters, something very different to the alphabet. (Madelene Cronjé, MG)

Picture this: Mandarin has more than 80 000 characters, something very different to the alphabet. (Madelene Cronjé, MG)

How do you say: “the dog ate my homework” in Mandarin? This will be a useful phrase for some school children come January 2016.

The enterprising Angie Motshekga, South Africa’s basic education minister, apparently dreams of getting pupils in the country’s government schools to learn how to write these characters and hopefully master the language.

Her office told provincial and national authorities in a circular that Mandarin will be taught in public schools next year. The circular said Mandarin would be phased in incrementally as a nonofficial, optional language from 2016 to 2018.

“The roll-out of Mandarin will be incrementally implemented in schools as follows: grades four to nine and 10 will be implemented in January 2016, followed by grade 11 in 2017 and grade 12 in 2018,” said the circular, which is signed by the department’s acting director general, Paddy Padayachee. 

Emma Chen, who was born in Taiwan and has lived in Johannesburg for more than 30 years, provided the useful “dog ate my homework” translation for the Mail & Guardian.

“It’s such a different philosophy in terms of structure of the language. For example, we don’t really have alphabets but characters. You have to start straight into characters [when learning it],” she said.

There are more than 80 000 Chinese characters, something that makes Chen question the viability of teaching Mandarin in South Africa’s schools.

Who would teach it?
“I don’t think it’s practical because where would the teachers come from? I just find that it would be quite a difficult language to master, especially if you don’t have good teachers. There’s very little common ground between Mandarin and English or French.”

Elijah Mhlanga, the spokesperson for basic education, said a group of South African teachers were currently in China receiving training. “The Chinese government will provide support as far as teacher training is concerned,” he said.

But Chen believes it could take at least 10 years of part-time training for someone to become a proficient Mandarin teacher. “It could take about five to six years if it’s full-time learning. I think it’s a bit difficult.

“And also how useful is it? If the purpose is to trade with China, that is not the reason. There are many more Chinese who speak English already. Maybe not perfect English, but they can communicate probably better than South Africans who will learn Chinese.”

Motshekga first announced plans for the teaching of Mandarin in local schools last year, following the signing of bilateral agreements between South Africa and China. In addition to strengthening business ties, the countries agreed to co-operate on educational matters. 

At the time, Motshekga’s office said: “As [China is] South Africa’s biggest trading partner, it is important for our children to become proficient in the Confucius language and develop a good understanding of Chinese culture.”

Additional options
She finally approved Mandarin this year, along with German, Serbian, Italian, Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, Tamil, Telegu and Urdu as additional optional languages.

But Mandarin is the only language about which her office has issued a circular.

The influential 250 000-strong South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) sees this as a new form of colonisation and has vowed its members won’t teach it.

“This we’re going to oppose. Our teachers … must reject it with the contempt it deserves,” the union’s general secretary, Mugwena Maluleke, said. “Why is Mandarin, all of a sudden, the only language they are sending a circular about? Then they still say it’s nonofficial? It’s [being] imposed.”

The teaching of Mandarin has gained traction in South African universities over the past few years. Six universities host Confucius Institutes, of which there are 42 in Africa. They are affiliated to China’s education ministry and promote Chinese language and culture.“It’s such a different philosophy in terms of structure of the language. For example, we don’t really have alphabets but characters”

Bongani Nkosi


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