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Good morning, !gâi llgoas, ni hao ma

New languages are being introduced in schools in an effort to promote cultural understanding and to give people more job opportunities.

The faces of Sunami Stelling, Lindelo Ngece and Chandre Rautenbach light up every Friday when they join the schoolchildren for two hours to learn Mandarin.

The trio, who teach history, maths and art, respectively, at Willowridge High in Pretoria, are not embarrassed to sit among their 28 charges and listen attentively as Qing Yuan Hu (26) teaches them about the Chinese characters.

Hu, who is reading for a master’s degree at Yangzhou University in China, is among seven Chinese volunteers teaching Mandarin as an optional extra subject at 10 schools in Pretoria.

Seven Chinese teachers based in Pretoria are also part of the pilot project, which started last year, organised by the department of basic education and the Chinese government.

Next year, schoolchildren at two schools in the Northern Cape could be learning Nama, spoken in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, and their counterparts in other parts of the country could be learning French or Swahili.

Geoffrey van der Merwe, spokesperson for the Northern Cape education department, confirmed that Nama was not an officially recognised language of learning and teaching in the province, but that it would be piloted at two schools next year.

“We will identify the schools where Nama is most prevalent and thereafter roll it out to other areas.”

He said an agreement involving the Northern Cape provincial government and the Namibian government would help with the recruitment of qualified teachers in Nama.

“We are confident that this initiative will go a long way to ensure that the rich history and culture of Nama remains preserved in the Northern Cape,” he added.

Suren Govender, chief director of curriculum in the department of basic education, said the department was “quite advanced” in developing a curriculum for French, following a request by the French government to offer the subject at schools.

“But we are not going to make it compulsory for our children. We can give support by ensuring that the language is offered in a regulated manner with an approved curriculum, and where there isn’t a financial cost to the department.”

He told Parliament recently that one of the department’s long-term plans was to introduce Swahili at schools. Like Mandarin and Nama, French and Swahili will be optional extra subjects that will be taught after school hours.

Hu, who is also teaching Chinese to three officials from the department of international relations and co-operation for three hours twice a week, said she derived pleasure from teaching those attending her classes at Willowridge High. She spends hours preparing for her lessons.

“These students are interested in Mandarin and have different reassons for wanting to learn it,” she said.

“Some are hoping to earn money through learning Mandarin and others want to use it when they get a chance to travel to China.”

Last year, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga revealed that 43 schools across the country were participating in the pilot project.

Stelling said she had a private arrangement with Hu to teach her English, which Hu reciprocated by teaching her Chinese.

“We promoted the programme and there was great interest right from the start.”

Earlier this month, Motshekga and the ambassador of the People’s Republic of China in South Africa, Tian Xuejun, donated smartboards and Mandarin textbooks to her school.

She said interest in the Mandarin class increased after the ambassador’s visit.

“We told our kids that it [Mandarin] will give them an edge when it comes to being hired, especially as a result of China’s growing involvement in our country.”

Mathudi Ralekhetho, 15, a grade nine pupil at Willowridge High, said she chose to study Mandarin because she found everything about the Asian culture and country “quite interesting”, adding: “So, I thought it would be fun to also learn about its language.”

She can sing the chorus of two songs and was able to have a brief conversation with a Chinese citizen.

Ralekhetho was placed second in a national competition last year, which involved delivering a speech in Chinese as well as a performance involving either martial arts, calligraphy and a dance, or singing.

Her achievement won her an all-expenses-paid trip to Beijing. 

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Prega Govender
Prega Govender is the Mail & Guardians education editor. He was a journalist at the Sunday Times for almost 20 years before joining the M&G in May 2016. He has written extensively on education issues pertaining to both the basic and higher education sectors.

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