The Development of Confucius Institutes and Some Implications for Language Centres in European Higher Education

Mary Ruane*

School of Asian Studies (SAS) in University College Cork, Cork, Ireland


The scale and pace of growth of Chinese language teaching is a recent and remarkable development in the history of language teaching. In a very short time, there has been an increase both in the demand for Chinese language teaching and in the supply of courses to meet demand. This rise in provision has occurred globally, across all continents, and has happened at all educational levels, from primary to secondary, tertiary and adult education (Lo Bianco 2011). A key factor in the global spread of Chinese has been the establishment of the worldwide network of Confucius Institutes to promote and support the teaching of Chinese language and culture. The main focus in this article is on Confucius Institutes and their role in European higher education, in particular their current and potential relations with university

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language centres. Over recent decades, university language centres have expanded greatly; they have become key providers of language teaching (across many languages) in universities and they increasingly act as advisors and shapers of policy in the field of language learning and cross-cultural management.

A defining feature of Confucius Institutes - unlike national cultural institutes such as the Instituto Cervantes, Goethe-Institut, and Alliance Frangaise with which they are often compared - is that they are normally located on a university campus and hosted by universities with which they have contractual agreements. As well as with the host country university, Confucius Institutes have a formal link with at least one university partner in China. Based therefore on a university campus, they are co-located with other language teaching departments, centres or units which have the remit to teach many different languages including in many cases, the teaching of Chinese language and culture. The worldwide expansion in numbers of both Confucius Institutes and university language centres is evidence of the increasing importance of second and foreign language teaching in 21st century universities and as such is a very welcome and overdue development in an increasingly globalized age. However it also signals changes in approaches to the format of provision. Increased demand for language learning is met by the development of structures which allow the provision of many languages within common and shared systems underpinned by multilingual and plurilingual theories of language learning (Council for Cultural Co-operation, Council of Europe 2001). To meet demand, contemporary university language centres normally work within a framework of multilingualism and plurilingualism and offer a wide range of languages within a shared research, pedagogic and delivery system. On the other hand, Confucius Institutes focus on the teaching of Chinese and operate within a monolingual perspective in terms of policy and practice.

The fast pace of expansion in the number of Confucius Institutes throughout the world and the resulting focus on monolingual practice have implications for policy in language teaching especially within a university context. Against this background, this paper examines some aspects of the relationship between both Confucius Institutes and language centres on university campuses in Europe. The aims are firstly to outline some key features of the growth in Confucius Institutes in recent years and their manner of operation. The second aim is to look at how language centres have expanded in higher education in recent times and examine some implications of this for the teaching of Chinese and the relationship with the Confucius

Institutes. In the final section, the aim is to investigate existing and possible links between these two language teaching structures and how they might be built upon and developed for the future in the interest of enhanced language provision for all.

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