The recently renovated Makerere University Confucius Institute is one of the centres that are expected to drive the study of Chines language, traditions and cultures in Uganda. PhoTo / Stephen Otage 


The business essence of learning Chinese

What you need to know:

  • China and its global positioning in trade and commerce has made the country important to the rest of the world making the need to learn Chinese a necessity. 

When Emma Madibo Masaba enrolled to study International Economics and Trade in China, he did not think it would present several other opportunities.

Having gone through the mandatory one year of learning Chinese, Masaba had attained the edged to sustain a conversation in Chinese. 

Years later, he has built a translation business that has worked with ministers such as Minister of State Mineral Development Peter Lokeris and the presidency.

“Knowing Chinese has exposed me to several opportunities; walking into doors I had never dreamed of. The sole reason these people have entrusted me with such responsibility is because I understand and speak Chinese,” he says.

At times, he says, translation goes beyond relaying information to seeing the discussions to the last end.

“The person who has hired you may, in some instance, expect that since you understand the language, you will, therefore, ensure that all is accomplished to the end. That could be seen in cases of creating local relations, sealing a business deal and the like,” he says.

Many people have lost out or been cheated out of opportunities because they don’t understand a certain language.

Therefore, Masaba has come to understand that he holds a lot in his hands and does everything with integrity.

“I hold professional ethics highly. Thus I do not focus on individual benefit alone, which usually leads many into manipulating conversations. That way, my clients are satisfied,” he says.

Such and more are the benefits of learning Chinese and Gilbert Gumushabe, the director at Makerere University Confucius Institute, says that is the importance of being multi-lingual.

“You need to know your mother tongue, the language of instruction [English] and an additional language. If you know any other languages, you are at a higher advantage because you can easily communicate with those outside your circle,” he says.

Business sense
While many have learned foreign languages such as French and Germany, Chinese seems to be picking some good trends.  

However, one wonders, what makes the language important and to be specific, where is the business sense?

Available data indicates that at least 1.31 billion people speak Chinese as their first language.
This is about 16 percent of the world’s population and it is one of the six United Nations official languages.

Its importance is further highlighted by China’s place in global commerce and trade, which has made the country a leading trade partner of several countries, including Uganda.
Therefore, it would make business sense for anyone to learn Chinese.

According to Gumushabe, just like the English, Chinese nationals have hugely invested in Uganda. Therefore, because of their background, they need people who understand their language to work with.

“That way, we will attract investments from China, which translates in economic growth. Speaking their language also boosts their confidence in us. It shows we have taken a step to appreciate their traditions,” he says.

Whereas, Uganda is still low on manufacturing, imports from China, among which include technology have been flooding the country and managing this is only possible if you can relate with the language.

Additionally, China, as a business hub with a lot of manufacturing and is a destination for several Ugandan business people. Speaking the language of trade is as important as trade itself.

“It is better to know what you are negotiating for than go through third parties. Often, some messages get lost in translation, which could lead to buying at a price higher than what other are buying at,” Gumushabe says.

Away from the businesses, Rodney Rugyema, the administrator at Makerere University Confucius Institute, says speaking Chinese is an added advantage in the job market.

“It even helps to phase out the need for expatriates because they would have found people who not only have the skill but know and appreciates their language,” he says.

With most of the companies coming here being subsidiaries of state enterprises, for Ugandans to get employed in decision making positions, Gumushabe says, there must be something special about them.  

Beyond this, Chinese tourists need translation services when they come here, which Rugyema says is an opportunity for employment.  “This a job opportunity that learning Chinese presents,” he says.    

Study opportunities
“When non-Chinese go to study in China, there is a compulsory one year period that a student takes to learn the language and traditions of the country. However, with prior knowledge, this period is cut back or someone is exempted from some modules based on what you already know,” Rugyema says.

Learning a foreign language is already difficult enough for many yet Chinese comes with a whole new set. The characters are totally foreign to the Ugandan education system, but Rugyema says that is where the opportunity lies.

“Few people will be brave enough to get through with the hard work. As such, the opportunities are many, not to mention space for competition without suffocation,” he says.

The characters are taught in a process that allows a student to listen, speak before reading and write it together to create a conversation.

“Once listening and speaking have been grasped, then you can recognise the characters. The characters are also specific. Strokes differ which eases recognition, writing and reading. While is not easy, it is doable,” Rugyema says.

Those with prior knowledge of Chinese and want to enrol, Rugyema says, are assessed for speaking, writing and reading, after which, they are placed in a class they fit.  “It is like a proficiency exams, which expires after a year or two. The logic is that if someone has not been using the language, their proficiency level declines,” he says.

 At Makerere University Confucius Institute, course costs are subsidised by the government of China and Uganda.

For instance, an adult doing a short course at the institute pays Shs250,000 while students pay Shs150,000 for each of the six levels, which each lasts two-and-a half months.