A new trend: Pacific island language teaching as part of the Belt and Road Initiative
By Denghua Zhang and Setope So’oa’emalelagi China’s push for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the Pacific is receiving growing attention. All eight Pacific island countries (PICs) that recognise Beijing, including Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu, have signed up to the BRI, an ambitious but controversial program designed to link China with countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and even the Pacific.
Much of the spotlight has been on the impact of the BRI overseas. We take a unique approach by discussing the start of an ambitious PIC language-teaching program in China, and the program’s role in facilitating the rollout of the BRI in those PICs with which China has diplomatic relations. While the teaching has the potential to promote China’s understanding of the region, the sustainability of teaching languages with relatively few speakers is in question.
Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) has been entrusted with the teaching of Pacific languages in China. Approved by China’s Ministry of Education in 2017, BFSU started to advertise new four-year bachelor courses on seven Pacific languages, including Bislama, Cook Islands Māori, Fijian, Niuean, Samoan, Tok Pisin and Tongan. These languages cover all of China’s eight diplomatic partner states in the Pacific. The formal teaching is expected to start soon. Students will enrol at BFSU’s School of English and International Studies with English as the first compulsory foreign language and another major foreign language and one of the aforementioned PIC languages as the second and third elective foreign languages. It will be part of the bachelor course for the English language program.
The main driver of this ambitious program appears to be to support China’s diplomacy and President Xi Jinping’s signature project — the BRI. As BFSU stated explicitly in the job advertisement for Pacific language teaching positions in February 2019:
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