Kunming – Despite learning Tamil for just one month, Yang Yuchao has been attracted by its beautiful script and pronunciation. With a history of more than 2,000 years, the Tamil language is spoken in countries including India and Sri Lanka. "It has 247 letters, about ten times that of English. It's difficult to learn but very charming," said Yang, a member of the Bai ethnic group.
Interested in languages, he chose Tamil as his major in Yunnan Minzu University (YMU) last year and spent the first half of semester studying the history and culture of South Asian countries. Besides Tamil, the School of South Asia where Yang studies also teaches another six languages including Hindi, Urdu, Nepali and Bengali.
The courses are to cater to the growing demand for learning languages as China pushes ahead the Belt and Road Initiative, according to Fang Zhen, dean of the school. The initiative, proposed by China in 2013, aims to build trade and infrastructure networks connecting Asia with Europe and Africa along the ancient Silk Road trade routes to seek common development and prosperity.
"China has been actively expanding economic, trade, education and cultural exchanges with India, Pakistan, and other south Asian countries," Fang said. Kunming, capital of southwest China's Yunnan Province, held the South and Southeast Asia Commodity Expo and Investment Fair last year, with more than 500 billion yuan (79 billion U.S. dollars) in deals signed.
In 2017, a total of 18,800 overseas students came to Yunnan to study. Students from South and Southeast Asian countries made up the highest proportion. "To strengthen cooperation with neighboring countries, personnel training is important," Fang said. Founded in 2015, the School of South Asia in YMU aims to serve enterprises and diplomatic institutes between China and South Asian countries.
It has 135 students who, besides language skills, also study subjects such as law, international trade and economics, as well as international politics. "We want our students to become well-rounded rather than just a translator. In this way they can play bigger roles in the Belt and Road Initiative," she said. "It's my responsibility to promote Tamil," said Zhang Qi, Tamil language teacher at YMU.
Zhang worked at a radio station for two years before pursing her master's degree in Hong Kong. She had been working in Hong Kong for three years when she heard about YMU's recruitment process. "I was impressed by the hardworking students, brand new campus and professional colleagues here, so I left Hong Kong and joined YMU," Zhang said.
Yunnan is expected to become an important bridge connecting South and Southeast Asia due partly to its proximity to these areas. In 2013, the province established an advisory committee on the language teaching to further the training of talent. "Graduates from our school will be more competitive in the job market, with the construction of Belt and Road," Yang said. "Government institutes and Chinese enterprises abroad are our targets."