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Cover Stories Series 2014> Confucius Institutes:A Decade of Culture> Archives
UPDATED: September 9, 2014 NO. 37 SEPTEMBER 11, 2014
Foreign and Fluent
Students from around the world gather annually in China for feted language proficiency competition
By Denis Green

The eventual winner of this year's competition, Monica Cunha da Silva of Brazil, said, "I first came to Kunming in China when I was 13 and was there for a year. I remember once I saw an American on TV speaking fluent Chinese, and I wanted to be able to do the same. I tried out for the competition before, and this time I was lucky."

"There is an old Chinese saying that 10 seconds on stage can take 10 years of work. The competition has been hard work, but I've made so many friends here," said Cunha da Silva.

Sense of pride

Among the five finalists who performed in front of the three celebrity judges was 18-year-old Zimbabwean Anesu Mhembere. He was present at the final last year, acting as backup for a fellow countryman, and found the whole experience as a participant this year to be life changing and memorable.

"The performances and dancing have been the best parts of the trip. I love to dance and being able to perform the dances of my home country makes me really proud," he said.

Mhembere hopes to use his Chinese skills and experience from the competition as a catalyst for a future in China. "My dream is to become a bridge between Zimbabwe and China in terms of language and translation. That's why I want to come to China and study international relations," said Mhembere.

One of the highlights of the evening was the return of Ratsizakaina Isaia Herimialy, who was a first-prize winner in the 11th Chinese Bridge. At the competition she was given a scholarship, and now studies at Beijing Language and Culture University. "Chinese Bridge changed my life," said the Madagascar native.

She owes a lot to a former Chinese teacher surnamed Huang, who, she claims, was her inspiration to join the competition. "I was studying Chinese in Madagascar, and my teacher from the Confucius Institute encouraged me to enter the competition, but then he went back to China. I really regret never being able to thank him."

"Not only was he a Chinese teacher, he was also a life teacher," Herimialy said.

In an emotional reunion, she was surprised by Huang on the stage. "There are many volunteers from the Confucius Institutes, working quietly to promote Chinese all over the world," said Huang. "I want to thank the Confucius Institutes for allowing so many students to learn Chinese. I loved my work promoting Chinese in Madagascar and I hope I can go back there for a visit."

Herimialy's performance also attracted the interest of Malagasy media back home. Mainstream media outlets including Tribune, Les Nouvelles and TVM provided reports tracking her progress in the competition.

She was the first competitor from Madagascar to take part in the Chinese Bridge and the first African to win top prize in the competition. Winning made her an instant celebrity back home. "I went from being a normal person to a superstar. I liked it at first, but then I thought it was too much. I had people asking me every day to do translating work," Herimialy said.

Mutually intelligible

The competition was the brainchild of Xu Jialu, former Vice Chairman of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, who proposed the idea in 1999. Speaking at the final, Xu said, "There is a story in the Bible that says God created different languages for the city of Babel, effectively making people in different areas unable to communicate with each other. Chinese Bridge works to connect people of different cultures, allowing communication between different peoples, languages and cultures."

Xu noticed that along with an increase in participants' overall knowledge of Chinese, the judges and critiques have become more well-rounded over the last 13 years. "I hope that in the future the content of the competition will be even more profound, and that it will integrate Chinese culture and the cultures of the countries that the students come from," he said.

As the Chinese Bridge competition demonstrates, Chinese is a language which can be feasibly learned, and learned well. Whether it's bridging a gap between two countries, allowing one to become more enmeshed in a foreign culture or giving job seekers better prospects, Chinese is fast becoming the second language of choice for foreign university students today.

Email us at: yanwei@bjreview.com

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