JEDDAH: As one-fifth of the world’s population speaks Chinese, Saudi Arabia has joined a global community incorporating the Chinese language into its educational systems.
It is believed that companies prefer to hire people who speak more than one language so the University of Jeddah made it compulsory for preparatory year students, hoping students will benefit from the added education.
The Kingdom and China have enjoyed stable and profound relations ever since the countries established diplomatic ties in 1990. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman made a historic visit to China in February 2019 and was received by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The latter stressed his country’s keenness on joint efforts with Saudi Arabia to support strategic relations between the two countries.
After 31 years of solid relations, the incorporation of the Chinese language into Saudi universities and schools will build on the ties shared between the two G20 giants. It will also contribute to the education goals for the ambitious Saudi Vision 2030.
Other Saudi universities, such as King Abdul Aziz University, have also introduced programs in Chinese for their students.
In an interview, Ibrahim Saadi, dean of the institute of languages at the University of Jeddah, said that his school started to teach Chinese after the crown prince issued directives to include the language in Saudi educational programs.
“Since the decision was made, the University of Jeddah began its procedural measures to implement the plan of introducing Chinese as a second language at the university along with English,” he said. “The council of the university approved the Chinese language as a teaching and scientific research language in the university.”
In another media interview, Saadi told the Al-Arabiya TV channel that all students wanting to join the university must take a course on the principle of Chinese language skills as it became compulsory for students in the preparatory year program.
As one of the six official languages of the UN, there is a higher demand for learning the Chinese language.
More than 10 million students in the US, ranging from kindergarten to Grade 12, are studying a world language. That makes up approximately 20 percent of US schoolchildren, according to a 2017 survey conducted and published by American Councils for International Education.
Spanish was the second most taught language in all 50 US states with 7.4 million students, followed by French (1.3 million) and German (331,000).
Back in the Kingdom, securing Chinese instructors to teach at the university became a challenge over the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic as the project was delayed.
Remote learning, a byproduct of the pandemic, provided another alternative.
The University of Jeddah entered an agreement with the Jinan-based Shandong Normal University as it provided the Saudi university with video-recorded lessons. In Jeddah, a team from the E-Learning and Distance Education Center reproduced and edited the classes while adding Arabic and English commentaries to help students comprehend the content. The university also attracted local instructors who spoke Chinese to join the new program at the university.
According to Talal Al-Asmari, director of the center, the New Concept Chinese was selected as the reference textbook for the course.
“After consulting professionals who specialize in teaching Chinese, we introduced the curriculum to the students who were registering for the course in September 2020,” he said.
Douglas Steedman, an English language instructor at the University of Jeddah, who also speaks Chinese, said that the first semester of teaching Chinese at the school had been inspiring.
“The first semester has been online classes and distance learning and that adds another challenge for students from the very beginning,” he said in a video produced by the UJ.
“So, with my classes, what I try to do is bring energy and enthusiasm and share my passion for this subject. I try to be encouraging, supportive, and patient as we just go at a very reasonable pace through the materials. We do a lot of repetition and try to make the students comfortable and curious about the language so that they enjoy studying it.”
As it was the first time the UJ students spoke Chinese, many of them felt timid to use the language spoken by a fifth of the world's population. Al-Asmari commented that distance learning had given them a precious chance to overcome their shyness and hesitancy to speak Chinese.
Commenting on introducing Chinese in the Saudi educational curriculum, China’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chen Weiqing, said: “With the gradual popularization of the Chinese language in the Saudi education, it will further promote mutual understanding and deepen the friendship between the two peoples.”