Kenya is working on a plan to introduce the teaching of Chinese as a foreign language in its schools. According to plans announced by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) in late April, the language will be optional like French, German and Spanish which are already taught in Kenyan schools. The teaching of Chinese is expected to start in 2017.
The move to incorporate Chinese into Kenyan school curricula comes against the backdrop of the two countries’ strengthened economic cooperation as well as trade and investment relations over the past decade. China-Kenya bilateral trade rose 53 percent to a record high of 5 billion US dollars in 2014, with China being Kenya's largest trading partner and source of direct investment. The government of Kenya believes bilateral relations could become even stronger, if their citizens were having a working knowledge of Chinese.
A similar announcement was made by the Department of Basic Education of South Africa in late March, which noted that pupils at South African schools will be able to choose Mandarin as an additional language from January 2016.These two decisions clearly reflect a global trend which is strengthened by the fact that the number of non-native speakers learning Chinese surged from less than 30 million in 2004 to 100 million in 2014. They do, however, also illustrate some other aspects. First of all, it seems that teaching Chinese in African schools is as controversial as it is elsewhere. In the case of Kenya, it was reported that one official of the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development “defended the introduction of Chinese as a subject in the Kenyan education system” while it was not reported against whom he was defending it. This was somewhat different in South Africa where the South African Democratic Teachers Union, the largest trade union for teachers in the country, rejected the plans as it “would be tantamount to a new form of colonization.” The union general secretary Mugwena Maluleke said his organization “will oppose the teaching of Mandarin in our schools with everything that we have [because] we see it as the worst form of imperialism that is going to happen in Africa.” Leaving those emotional and ideological aspects aside, the question arises how these plans can be realized?
Kenyan curriculum experts admit that the implementation would require the input of expertise, which is currently lacking. Therefore, KICD is asking the Confucius Institutes and the Chinese Embassy for support in this regard. A representative of the Confucius Institute at the University of Nairobi said that they “are researching a situation where graduates from Confucius Institutes in Kenya can be able to teach the learners.” While this seems to be an obvious idea, surveys analyzing Confucius Institutes in Africa indicates that it is – at least at the moment – rather unlikely that local Confucius Institutes are able to train a professional cohort of local Chinese teachers. Not only is Chinese hard to learn (although opinions differ), but Confucius Institutes on the African continent (as elsewhere as well) also face a number of practical issues, including lack of teachers, unfitting teaching materials or different styles of teaching. These challenges make it difficult to become language proficient. Which, in turn, would be a prerequisite to teach pupils. Therefore, it remains to be seen how the plans eventually develop and how successful they can become.