Pakistan's Mandarin Love Affair

09/08/2011 06:15 pm ET | Updated Nov 08, 2011

Pakistanis share a love-hate relationship with China. They love to turn to China if things are not good on the Western -- well, mostly American -- front. They are quick to ditch the long-term strategic understanding with China if the United States warms up due to changing international scenarios. In the latest edition of this decades of flip-flopping, schools in Sindh, the second most populous province of Pakistan, may start teaching Mandarin Chinese beginning in 2013.

The proposal, which has caused significant controversy, is rooted in the belief that Pakistanis well-versed in Mandarin will be better equipped to embrace the opportunities provided by what will ultimately become the largest economy in the world. It is also a common perception among Pakistanis that China will replace the U.S. as the "global superpower."

The suggestion, which may soon turn into a decision, has created rifts between the provincial government and teachers, as the latter are unable to decipher a single Mandarin character, let alone teach it to students. Sindhi, the dominant language of the province, is part of the curriculum beginning in the third grade. Mandarin, if things go well, will be taught beginning in the sixth grade. Teachers are concerned that students will find it difficult to grasp the dynamics of an entirely new language at such a young age.

"Students find it difficult to learn Sindhi, and they are forcing us to teach Mandarin, which we don't even know," said an elementary school teacher from Karachi. The city has a minuscule Sindhi population, as it is dominated by Mohajirs, or immigrants from India, who speak Urdu. The decision to make Sindhi a mandatory school language caused severe rioting in the 1970s. Mohajirs have since compromised, and Sindhi has become a core part of the curriculum.

No rioting is expected over Mandarin, as it is not the language of any ethnic group of Pakistan. The only problem is finding people who can actually teach the characters, pronunciation and grammar. This will require hiring thousands of native speakers, given the lack of local expertise. It will be even more difficult to acclimatize them to local education standards, which are in shambles. How the Chinese, who don't know local languages, will be able to communicate with sixth graders is another question altogether.

"It is an insane proposal and will soon be reversed," said a senior official who wished to remain anonymous. He said the proposal was made without due consideration and in stark violation of ground realities. Poor security conditions and lack of financial prowess (the imported Chinese teachers will not accept the pittance paid to locals) will create further problems for the government.

The decision is also drawing ire from parents, who are not eager to pay extra to compensate for the salaries of the Chinese teachers. Some are also questioning the validity of the proposal. "Even the Chinese are going head over heels in love with English, and they are planning to teach us Mandarin," said Bushra, a mother of two elementary school students. She also talked about the difficulties children would face in learning a language that has thousands of largely monosyllabic characters. Pakistani languages don't have more than a few dozen characters and are relatively easy to learn.

Pakistan is apparently not the only country where Mandarin is expected to become a part of school curriculum. Sweden plans to offer Mandarin classes to primary school students within a decade, and American schools are increasingly warming up to it. In Sindh, however, the teaching of Mandarin will be mandatory and thus appears to be a loopy decision. Other provinces in Pakistan have not yet decided whether they will follow in these footsteps. Interestingly enough, there is hardly any coverage of the news in the Chinese media. Does this mean they are aware of the fragile nature of Pakistani decisions? They will not have to wait until 2013, as a final decision will most likely be made in a few months.