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Beijing uni will offer Tok Pisin & 6 other Pacific language courses

BooksPRIANKA SRINIVASAN & PEGGY KONG | ABC Pacific Beat

MELBOURNE - China is pushing for more university students
to study Pacific Island languages in a bid to bolster the
appeal of its trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative across
the region.

Seven Pacific Island languages will soon be available for study in
bachelors-level programs at the Beijing Foreign Studies University
(BFSU) including Tok Pisin, one of Papua New Guinea's official languages, as well as Samoan, Tongan, and Fijian.

The move comes as China continues to try and grow its diplomatic influence in the region, amid renewed efforts from Australia to "step up" its own engagement in the Pacific.

China's foreign ministry accuses Australia of acting like "a condescending master" in its relations with Pacific Island countries.

Languages from all eight of China's diplomatic partners in the Pacific will be represented in the courses, which have been developed with the explicit goal of improving China's foreign ties.

"[BFSU] plans to cover languages of all the countries that have diplomatic relations with China by 2020."

Scholarships will also be offered to Pacific students as part of the language exchange.

Australia has almost no comparable language programs at its universities — the Australian National University is the only institution with a Pacific language course, specifically in Tok Pisin, which is offered online.

Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at New Zealand's Massey University, told the ABC's Pacific Beat program the lack of Pacific Island language skills among Australian diplomatic staff has not gone unnoticed.

"Language has been a key criticism of Australia, certainly in terms of the language skills of those deployed to the region," she said.

"Language as a soft power tool is critical because as we know in the Pacific, relationships and trust are very much the currency in the region.

"You can only really build true, genuine relationships through shared language, shared culture and understanding."

In addition to the seven Pacific Island languages, Beijing's Foreign Studies University will also offer dozens of other minority languages like East Timor's Tetum and the Dhivehi language spoken in the Maldives.

Each of the languages is from countries that have signed on to China's Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious infrastructure and development project that aims to connect 126 countries through land and sea.

The project is Chinese President Xi Jinping's signature foreign policy, and experts say it aims to reshape global trade flows to place China at its centre.

"The Chinese Government will not spare any effort in promoting [the BRI] globally, including in the Pacific," Denghua Zhang, a research fellow at the Australian National University's Department of Pacific Affairs, told the ABC.

"The main purpose of this kind of teaching program is to support Chinese foreign policy and especially to support the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative."

Dr Zhang worked alongside Setope So'oa'emalelagi, a Samoan language teacher at Liaocheng University in China's Shandong province, to research the impacts of Pacific language teaching on Chinese foreign policy.

Mr So'oa'emalelagi said the push for more university-level Pacific Islands language courses was significant, especially since the Beijing Foreign Studies University was a school of choice for Chinese diplomats.

However, attracting enrolments could prove to be a headache — some of the languages, like Cook Islands Maori and Niuean, have fewer than 15,000 native speakers, and that fact has been a point of controversy for prospective students.

"Fiji has a population of less than one million, so there is little use in studying Fijian," one critic wrote on the online forum Zhihu.

"Such a major cannot guarantee employment."

Dr Powles from Massey University said China's push ought to be a concern for both Australia and New Zealand, where opportunities for learning Pacific Island languages are limited.

Australia will plunge billions of dollars into projects across the region through grants and soft loans. But what's driving this, and what are the pitfalls?

Dr Powles said irrespective of China's plans, both countries should first be worried about the fact they have not already implemented similar programs.

"What Australia and New Zealand do in the region, as a rule, shouldn't be a reaction to what China is doing," she said.

"If the Australian Government and the Australian prime minister are serious about the relationship of family — of vuvale — if they're serious about a 'step up' in the region, then things like language and other critical elements of what it means to be part of a region need to also be elevated.

"Not because China's doing it, but because it's the only thing to do if you're serious about deepening your relationship with your neighbours."

For Mr So'oa'emalelagi, who has been teaching his course at Liaocheng University since March, the cultural value of the language classes trumps the geopolitical significance.

"Point one percent of people in China actually understand or know where Samoa is, let alone other islands," he said.

"So it's a great way for us to promote our culture and who we are through the language."

Comments

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Ed Brumby

No surprise in this announcement. The chief representative of a large state-owned Chinese insurer seeking to establish a branch in Australia told me in a recent conversation that Chinese companies have recognised the need for their staff in PNG to acquire Tok Pisin capability, preferably before they arrive in the country.

(He also noted, in passing, that Chinese mining corporations need to pay greater heed to the need to have public liability insurance.)

Corney Korokan Alone

The University of Papua New Guinea and Divine Word University in Madang should already be offering Mandarin language courses as an option or as part of Economics, Trade and International Relations.

I learnt basic French from a bloke there who taught the language.

Mandarin has a place in the Pacific Islands.

Francis Nii

Agreed, Michael Dom. Language is part of our culture and books are part of our culture and identity thus be supported for publishing in Mandarin for Chinese readers. Can people in the power-to-do please explore this opportunity.

Let's keep the fire spread in a different dimension.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Someone in Mosbi should go see the Chinese ambassador and have a chat about PNG literature.

Any volunteers?

Raymond Sigimet

China is definitely very serious in her relationship with PNG and the region. She's going to learn the lingua franca now.

David Kitchnoge

Well done China.

Although not Chinese, one of my best non Papua New Guinean friends is a gentlemen from Taiwan. His name is Lien Chin Wang but he was commonly known as Mote on the streets in Lae. Mote means 'lad' from the Kote language of Finschhafen.

Mote was part of the Taiwan agriculture technical mission based at Bubia and he was very popular among the locals.

He chewed buai with us, spoke fluent Tok Pisin and was a regular in my family home. His favourite music was Leonard Kania which was always on replay.

If the Chinese get this right and not merely learn our language to exploit us, this will be a game changer.

Michael Dom

Strike while the iron is hot.

Now is the time to share our culture of language and literature.

Now is the time to push for publishing support for PNG writers.

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