China should accelerate the teaching of various foreign languages, not just English, as the country’s Belt and Road Initiative progresses, experts said.
There are at least 53 official languages spoken in the 65 countries and regions involved in the BRI, but only about 20 of them have been taught to foreign language majors at higher education institutions in the country, said Wang Junfeng, President of the All China Lawyers Association.
“The lack of people who speak a foreign language other than English doesn’t benefit China in communicating information and culture with other BRI countries and regions, which may eventually affect people-to-people ties,” he said.
Chen Jingying, Vice-President of the East China University of Political Science and Law, said that language capability is important for the BRI to progress and for the country to continue its opening-up. She suggested increasing the supply of non-English foreign language programs.
Wang said that besides English, many other foreign languages are also important. “For example, Portugal is not a big country in terms of geographical area, but more than 200 million people around the world speak Portuguese.”
A report published by the State Information Center affiliated with the National Development and Reform Commission in 2017 said that around 95 percent of the 423 agencies providing language translation services in the country do Chinese-English translation. Only 2.6 percent of them provide translation services from Chinese to foreign languages other than three major ones-English, Japanese and French.
Experts said education authorities should increase the country’s investment in non-English foreign language education at universities and hire more teachers.
“Schools can encourage more young people to become foreign language majors through such means as tuition reductions, raising the amount of scholarships and helping graduates with employment,” Wang said.
It is also important to encourage more foreign students to come to China to learn Chinese, Wang said, adding that a more relaxed work visa policy was needed for those who hope to stay in China for employment after graduation.
Some leading schools in foreign language education said they had added new foreign language majors in recent years to respond to the country’s strategic development.
In 2016, for example, the Shanghai International Studies University started encouraging students to master at least two foreign languages, along with intercultural communication skills. It is now offering new majors in Hungarian, Polish, Kazak, Uzbek and Czech.
Students can also learn Swahili, a language of East Africa, and Pashto, a language spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan, two of the seven foreign language courses offered.