More by this Author

To catch a peek into China’s permeation in Kenya, you need a chance at Kilimani, a leafy Nairobi suburb. Chinese scripted business signage jostle for space with those in English or Swahili.

Change is here. There is a linguistic fad sweeping the continent and the world. Kenya is now entrenching Mandarin in the school system. Many other African states like Uganda, South Africa and Tanzania are also scrambling to teach the language. It is a statement and recognition that China has arrived as a global power.

Pragmatism ordains that since China is a rising power — will be the largest economy by 2020 according to Standard Chartered Bank PLC — proficiency in Mandarin, proponents reason, strategically prepares future generations for bountiful opportunities.

True. But that is where romanticism ends and real politics begins. “Language”, wrote Bishop Antonio de Nebrija, in Castilian Grammar, “has always been the perfect instrument of empire.” It is a tool of soft power buttressing the hard power of economics and military might.

Indeed, the dynamics of language in the international system are nuanced and complex. Language is an apparatus of power and prestige. It constructs and transmits ideologies. It vends culture and generates attraction. It manipulates and persuades. And, no matter sophistication in tanks, dominant powers desire to have their languages on the tongues of everyone.

That is why pro-Mandarin policies are a fantastic gift to China. Their symbolism is priceless as they procure psychological legitimacy for the red dragon. It is recognition from states, an acknowledgment of China’s primacy in the global political spectrum.

Currently, English is the king of dialects ruling over the world of diplomacy, commerce, technology, internet and entertainment. This is for a reason. During its golden age, the British Empire bestrode and controlled 25 per cent of the world, and spread English in the imperialistic expeditions.

English merchandised England’s values and culture. It altered national consciousness of colonies. Britain secured consent from the colonies to be ruled over in a phenomenon, which the Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramci, in his Prison Notebooks, described as “cultural hegemony”.

Indeed, in The Post American World and the Rise of the Rest, Mr Fareed Zakaria observes: “Britain’s stories and characters became more securely a part of the international culture than any other nation … So too did many English values.”

Britain still draws cultural and commercial dividends from the spread of English. The rise of the US as a superpower ensured English reigned supreme. It became the “ultimate instrument of the empire” as the US used it to consolidate its place in the hearts and minds of the world.

Indeed, today, English is to languages what the greenback is to currency. And now, Mandarin hankers to claim this place just as the yuan yearns to dislodge the dollar.

To understand the dynamics and politics of language you need a sojourn back in time — 1976 Soweto, South Africa. Pupils rose against the iron fisted apartheid regime. The iconic uprising was in protest against the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. Pupils feared they would be manipulated and controlled by the language of the oppressor who would use it for ideological engineering. They preferred English. The Soweto Massacre, historians content, emboldened the struggle to dismantle apartheid.

That is why, when Mandarin joins our linguistic mix, you can be sure it will also transmit the Chinese value system and rework our consciousness. It will be a tool of propaganda in public diplomacy clandestinely embedded in narratives exalting the Chinese way of life and thought.

Yet, Mandarin seems unstoppable. In October 2018, Zambians woke up to a shocker. The Times of Zambia, a state-owned paper, had published the main story in Mandarin to much consternation of the public and opposition politicians.

Whilst the paper blithely defended use of Mandarin as a strategy to increase revenue, it was not lost to observers that Zambia is cripplingly indebted to China and the article was a scheme to normalise the Chinese into the public psyche.

Small wonder Kenya’s prolific novelist, Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o, abhorred imperial language. In his Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Ngugi observes “the language of power is English and that becomes internalised … you normalise the abnormal and the absurdities of colonialism, and turn them into a norm from which you operate. Then you don’t even think about it.”

Indeed, the clout of language, beyond the functional, has for long intrigued scholars. The proclivity of language for domination is a tool profitably utilised in politics by ruling cultures.

The ideological constructs of language subtly overrun the subconscious, and even redesign identity regularised as normal. Philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, in Language and Symbolic Power, links languages to hegemonic enterprises and even in the diffusion of dominant ideas, persuasions that Ngugi holds.

Since in the international system a state’s interest supersedes everything, deploying language and culture to win over the hearts and minds is critical as Bishop Nebrija noted in 1492.

It is neither lost to the Communist Party of China nor any other power how language is critical in manoeuvring the dicey international systems and geopolitics. That is why for the past 14 years, the Chinese established a juggernaut — the Confucius Institute — to spread Mandarin and other cultural ideals. Today, the well-oiled machinery has operations in at least 170 countries. Through its charm offensive, 67 countries worldwide have sanctioned laws and policies to teach Mandarin and Chinese culture.


And that is why for China, the Confucius Institutes are strewn across the globe numbering 500. The target was 1,000 by 2020. Africa is home to 54; first hosted at the University of Nairobi. Today, Kenya has four institutes and South Africa five. These two are trophy anchor countries serving as gateway to Africa for many powers.

This is a premeditated scheme. In 2007 at the 17th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, the then Chinese President, Hu Jintao, knew a robust culture was critical to the rising China. “The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will definitely be accompanied by the thriving of Chinese culture,” he declared.

Language is at the heart of such renaissance. That is why in 2014, President Xi Jinping was bullish and committed to “increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message to the world.”

Indeed, soft power is a pearl that China needs in its meteoric rise. Currently China’s power is single-dimensional — economic. To be a true power, the capability to influence, without coercion, is indispensable.

The world’s lingua franca, English, is venerated back in the UK as a producer of “attractiveness”. In a report, The English Effect: The Impact of English, what it is worth to the UK and why it matters to world, the British Council, Britain’s cultural apparatus, observes “the global power of English has helped the UK to grow and maintain its position as a cultural superpower … with every chance of continuing to grow its soft power influence in today’s highly networked world”.

That is why it is still a paradox of sorts. In China folks are changing their first names to western sounding ones like Smith, Joshua or Kevin.

Millions others are studying English, including taking mass classes in stadiums. While the rich fancy western education and cultural products.

That is how sexy English is. In fact, the dominance of English is even unsettling folks in Brussels and more so the French. It has triggered some sort of race for the tongues.

Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron, rolled out an ambitious strategy to make French the dominant language in Africa, online and displace English in Brussels.

While addressing students in Burkina Faso, he warned “to refuse the French language in order to make English fashionable on the African continent is to be blind to the future …” a future he reckoned will be dominated by French in Africa and globally. He described French as the language of emancipation.

Since colonial times, France was obsessed with winning over the hearts and minds of Africans. It even crafted the assimilation policy a ridiculous ideological manipulation that suggested by adopting France’s culture and language Africans would become French.

Therefore, it must have deflated the ego and prestige of France when Rwanda dropped French for English. The switch, observers noted, was a political move, in protest of what was considered France’s role in the 1994 genocide.

Still, France is defiant. It is banking on Africa’s population windfall to be the bastion of. Indeed, of all the 300 million French speakers, 34.8 per cent are from sub-Sahara Africa, according to the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie. Macron is betting on education to achieve this ambitious crusade. That is why he even established a fund to boost education. It is like a race of sorts. But the British Council waxes lyrical about English: ” … it is the economically active, the thought leaders, the business decision-makers, the young, the movers and shakers present and future who are learning and speaking English. They are talking to each other more and more and English is the ‘operating system’ of that global conversation.”

The Confucius Institute can only dream of the day it can strut like British Council. Indeed, it will not be as easy as ABC to make Mandarin the international lingua franca. Most parents of the world still fancy English for its prestige and influence.

And according to the Defence Language Institute, Chinese is a difficult language to learn. In that league are Japanese, Korean and Arabic. Mandarin is even a pain to Chinese pupils.

Will the Kenyan pupil, saddled by heavy curriculum and starved of competent Mandarin instructors, crack this new logogram? Time will tell. But more important, it will be interesting to see the kind of cultural products that learners will be exposed to.

It is too early though to determine the influence and appeal of Mandarin. Beyond commerce, there may be no much robust incentives for its adoption after all. English had a strategic advantage — was easily entwined in culture, religion, education, commerce and administration. These instruments, save for commerce, are not readily at the disposal of China.

But as history has shown, language rises and falls with empires from the Hellenistic period to the wonder of Latin under the Romans, the fate and fortunes of hegemonies also dictate the fate of their language in the Gramcian sense of the word.

Mr Wamanji is a Public Relations and Communications adviser [email protected] twitter @manjis