Teaching Chinese in European Higher Education

The teaching of Chinese and Chinese Studies has a long and distinguished history in Europe. The first chair of Chinese in the world was created in 1814 in the College de France in Paris. The approach to the teaching of Chinese language was largely based on the study of classical texts. It was offered within a philological perspective broadly in line with practices in place for the teaching of Greek and Latin. Oral communication was not prioritized and there were few opportunities for students to travel to China or to have direct links

(Starr 2009). These methodologies broadly continued until late in the 20th century. But by and large the numbers studying Chinese remained low. In the late eighties and nineties, students mainly opted to study European languages. The movement towards increased European integration was underway and EU membership was expanding rapidly. Demand for English grew but there was also greater interest in learning other European languages. The study of nonEuropean languages remained a relatively small area.

In the late 20th century and mainly in the wake of ‘opening up’ in China in 1978 and the country’s seemingly unstoppable economic rise, change happened and interest in teaching and learning Chinese began to grow. In UK universities, according to Zhang and Li (2010, p. 90), the most popular uptake was in Chinese and Business. Chinese was increasingly seen as a subject which was important for the advancement of trade and commercial links. But the study of Chinese combined with another subject, within Arts/Humanities for example, also attracted numbers. France, which already had a long tradition in teaching Chinese Studies, spearheaded many new initiatives at tertiary and secondary levels (Bel Lassen 2012). The combined impact of centralized educational decision-making and leadership from leading French sinologists led to the establishment of projects to embed the teaching of Chinese at different educational levels. These included the creation of teaching posts, the development of innovative methodologies, the production of multimedia materials and the development of a teaching profession.

But as well as at degree level, there has also been very strong growth in non-specialist language provision offered as part of ‘Languages for all’ or University-wide language programmes. In these programmes, which are especially widespread in the UK, students can opt to take one or a small number of modules in Chinese in addition to their primary disciplinary study. In this way, students can get a base in the language on which they can subsequently build. By the beginning of the new century, Chinese had become a world and global language, widely used in communication (Lo Bianco 2011; Lo Bianco 2007).

While Chinese teaching in Europe expanded, it did so from a very low base. Numbers relative to those studying other languages were low. The infrastructural supports needed for Chinese were limited, including teaching staff, opportunities to link with China, access to pedagogic materials etc. Students perceived Chinese as a difficult subject too distant from European languages and requiring too much effort and time. Attrition rates were high. Institutional support in the form of finance for developmental projects, whether from Europe or local sources, was scarce (Starr 2009).

The establishment of Confucius Institutes in 2004 and the strategy of close cooperation/co-location with universities brought institutional change and support for the teaching of Chinese. For many higher education institutions, however, the development of Chinese language teaching was just one part of a broader context for the development of the host university’s China strategy. Universities, often dealing with a Chinese university for the first time, had to address a wide and complex agenda including areas as diverse as the establishment of bilateral research and teaching agreements, the setting up of scholarship schemes, joint teaching projects in Chinese Studies, student and staff exchange, public engagement or others. The teaching of Chinese language and culture was but one element in this broad canvas. In many cases, discussions on the shaping of policies on the joint Confucius Institute/host university/Hanban venture did not adequately (or sometimes not at all) involve or engage the host university applied linguists or language educators including those staff working in the university language centre or comparator units. And so the foundations for effective, collaborative relations with other language teaching bodies on campus were not given the attention needed.

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