As I was walking to my class at the Portland Confucius Institute yesterday, I found myself thinking about all the controversy surrounding China’s drive to open Confucius Institutes around the world. At the same time, I was thinking about how grateful I am that there is a Confucius Institute in Portland.
The Confucius Institute is similar to the Alliance Francaise or the Cervantes Institute – it’s a state-sponsored language and cultural center that promotes China’s language and culture. The main difference between the Confucius Institute and the other institutes is that Confucius Institutes are hosted at universities. The other difference, in my experience, is that courses at the Confucius Institute are cheap and many of the events are free. Taking a French class at the Portland Alliance Francaise is three to four times more expensive than taking a Chinese class at the Confucius Institute, and most of the Alliance Francaise’s events are not free.
If the goal is to encourage more people to learn your language and experience your culture, quite frankly the Chinese are going about it the right way.
I can understand some of the concerns that faculty in many universities have about accepting Chinese government money – and it does seem like there is a potential to stifle discussion of topics that China would rather not have discussed. But the emotion those professors should feel when China wants to put a Confucius Institute at their university is not indignation. It is shame. In fact, the whole US should feel ashamed at exactly how crucial the Confucius Institutes are to providing quality Chinese language instruction in the United States.
The fact is, there aren’t many affordable, high-quality Chinese language classes for adults (or even children) outside of the Confucius Institute. Confucius Institutes fund a lot of the Chinese classes in public schools. They provide Chinese language and cultural events.
Just to be clear, I am pro-academic freedom. But I wonder how many events related to China those universities actually have. I also think that many university foreign language departments put too much emphasis on teaching (and researching) complex political history, when students would actually learn more and be more interested in the subject if they could learn about, for example, common holidays or famous films.
My experience with the Confucius Institute is that the teachers and administrators there understand that. The classes they offer allow you to learn both language and culture. I’ve taken a lot of language classes, and the classes I’ve taken at the Confucius Institute are among the best I’ve every experienced. They are small, interesting and taught by professionals.
The Confucius Institute also funds generous scholarships for studying in China. These scholarships are open to just about anyone and allow students to study in China essentially for free. As far as I know, the US government does not have anything even remotely comparable. I’m going to China on one of these scholarships in the spring, and I’m not sure how else I would have been able to afford to go to China for several months.
Of all the devious things a foreign government could do, opening a language and culture center that makes language courses accessible and affordable is not very evil. If you think that Confucius Institutes are a trojan horse for Chinese spies or whatever, than create other opportunities for people of all ages to study Chinese – and other languages.