The Will to Plasticity

Brains, culture, and language learning

"Polyglot Dragon": What Languages Does the Chinese Army Learn?

China's strategic languages

I'm fascinated by how governments harness the neurological plasticity of its citizens for military and geopolitical strategic goals. Maybe that's an odd way to put it. But when governments create the resources to teach foreign languages to its citizens, that's what they're doing. In the United States, this happens at the Defense Language Institute (where 40 languages are taught) and the Foreign Service Institute (where 70 languages are taught). In China, it happens at the People Liberation Army's University of Foreign Languages, which now teaches 26 languages, as this fascinating article, "Polyglot Dragon," in the Armed Forces Journal relates.

The author, Scott Henderson, looked at publications that list the languages and courses taught at the university, whose students end up as military translators, diplomats, cryptologists, and intelligence analysts). From 1978 to 1987, the only languages were English, Japanese, Korean, and Russian. After 1987 until 1997, the university added Hindi, Kazakh, Turkey, Arabic, Burmese, Thai, and Vietnamese.

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Now, Henderson writes, the university offers courses in 26 languages, which reflect China's strategic interests in countries at its border and beyond. The languages are: Indonesian, Burmese, Cambodian, Hindi, Japanese, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Korean, Laotian, Malay, Mongolian, Nepali, Pashto, Russian, Thai, Urdu, Uzbek, Vietnamese, Ukrainian, English, French, German, Spanish, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish.

Henderson writes:

The change in languages taught at the PLAUFL reveals a nation following Mao's tenets on guerrilla warfare: First, secure your bases, then expand operations. The core languages (English, Japanese, Korean and Russian) show a nation fully engaged in defensive orientation, biding its time during the establishment and consolidation phases. The introduction of languages outside of China's core defensive interests mark a shift to an expansive phase.

Henderson adds a long discussion of how the added languages point to China's orientation along three "potential offensive strategic directions." I'm not qualified to comment on the geopolitics of his claims, but I'll just note that "offensive" doesn't necessarily mean "military" operations. He describes these strategic directions as routes toward economic development, such as three planned high-speed rail lines (Yunnan to Singapore; Xinjiang to Germany; and Heilongjiang and southern Europe). Added languages also point to China's increasing role in United Nation peace-keeping operations; 80% of these, Henderson writes ominously, are stationed in oil-producing countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Languages beget oil.

He concludes by saying, "In short, China is now strong enough to begin expanding outward in a meaningful way, and language has become a key ingredient behind the move." Several years ago, I wrote about China's push to promote Mandarin around the world via Confucius Institutes and other institutional arrangements. But Henderson's article demonstrates that China doesn't expect everyone else to be the only ones to be learning languages.

It also raises some interesting questions. Given that the Chinese have been teaching these languages for only a couple of decades, how well developed is their teaching methodology? Do they use aptitude tests to assess and rank students? Which are the more difficult languages for Chinese speakers to learn, and do they direct higher aptitude students toward those languages? In the US, government needs have inspired a huge proportion of the applied linguistic research into second language acquisition, foreign language pedagogy, and aptitude and proficiency testing. Are the Chinese using this research, too, and piggybacking on our own efforts to build the linguistic resources the US needs for its own geopolitical goals? I would really like to know more about this.

In Babel No More I include a brief discussion about polyglottery as something of a Western phenomenon - according to Victor Mair, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, "There was no interest in learning other languages out of sheer intellectual or linguistic curiosity" in pre-modern China. But polyglottery has never been a phenomenon that governments are interested in, because the challenge is always taking an adult and making him or her highly proficient in a single language, then deploying them. The Americans have no use for someone who speaks 18 languages to varying degrees; I doubt that the Chinese do, either.

Michael Erard, Ph.D., writes about language, languages, and the people who use and study them.

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