Ideal-logues: Language Promotion Institutes and the Problem of Representation

One topic that’s quite central to my dissertation is the growth of China’s Confucius Institute as a facilitator and arbiter of Mandarin Chinese education worldwide. The Confucius Institute launched in 2004 with a pilot program in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and has grown rapidly since. As of 2014, there were 610 Confucius Institutes (that’s not counting Confucius Classroom programs) worldwide. The Confucius Institute also administers the most popular assessment of Mandarin proficiency, the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK), organizes cultural activities, and hosts exchange programs and language competitions.

There has been some hand-wringing, especially in the West, of the Confucius Institute’s ties to the Chinese government (its parent organization, Hanban, is under the aegis of the Chinese Ministry of Education) and its rather naked ambition to advance Chinese soft power. While I certainly have my criticisms of the Chinese government and many of its policies and stances, I pose this question: how is the Confucius Institute any different from the British Council, Alliance Française, Instituto Cervantes, Goethe Institute, Dante Alighieri Society, or the Japan Foundation? Indeed, on its website, the Confucius Institute states that it was inspired by similar cultural promotion organizations in Europe (including those I just listed — notice that the majority of these organizations are named for a literary or philosophical figure that made defining contributions to the country’s culture).

As you’ve probably guessed, this has sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole about language and cultural promotion organizations. What exactly is a cultural promotion organization? Many countries seek to encourage tourism and awareness of their culture, and encourage people to learn their national language — these efforts will in turn (so the thinking goes) promote a positive image of the country and yield economic and political benefits on the world stage.

One of the primary problems with a lot of these state-sponsored cultural and linguistic promotion organizations is how they present their national language(s) and culture(s). Oftentimes, there’s no (s). You will not see many Cantonese, Yi, or Tibetan courses on offer at a Confucius Institute. The Alliance Française scarcely mentions minority languages like Breton and Corsican. The English you will learn from the British Council will be a very specific sort of English. Some of this is, to be fair, a matter of practicality. Learners who are just starting out or people who may not have a specific plan to travel to a specific place where a minority language or variety is spoken might do best learning the “standard” variety of the national language (though what gets to be the “standard” is a whole other big, hairy, imperialistic beast). Qualified teachers of certain languages or varieties may be difficult to come by. Even still, when national identity and image are tied so inextricably to language, omission of minority languages and varieties from cultural and educational programming speaks volumes.

In the case of the Confucius Institute (since that’s the one I know the most about, seeing as it’s a big part of my dissertation and I’ve gone to quite a lot of London-based Confucius Institute events), the Institute generally promotes Mandarin Chinese to the exclusion of other Chinese languages (see my other posts about why “Chinese” is a very imprecise term for the many languages spoken by ethnic Chinese people), and a very specific version of Chinese culture. The researchers Zhu Hua and Li Wei (2014) (also, side note, Li Wei is in my department! He’s really cool!) conducted a study of Confucius Institutes in the UK, and found that the Chinese culture the Confucius Institute promotes is often at odds with the diverse experiences and expressions of Chinese cultureS, especially among diaspora communities (and I go into this in my dissertation a lot, incidentally).

Another issue they explore is the fact that many teachers who work for Confucius Institute are very young and have grown up in a far more Westernized China, making them unfamiliar with many of the “authentic” traditional cultural practices they are supposed to teach, much to the consternation or amusement of diaspora Chinese students, who often grew up with more exposure to traditional Chinese culture, even if they could not speak any Chinese language — though many speak other varieties, such as Hokkien or Cantonese (Zhu Hua and Li Wei 2014).

This problem of authenticity is not unique to the Confucius Institute. On the Alliance Française London website, the About Us page advertises a “truly authentic French experience”. Just like the phrase “standard language”, this raises the question: what is “authentically” French? What cultures of the Francophonie are “authentically” French culture? Is a Corsican, Occitan, or Basque speaker “authentically” French? It’s especially important to consider this question as France grapples with how to integrate new immigrant populations, who often come from former French imperial possessions. How do they fit into the image of an “authentic” France?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that these institutions can be great resources for language learning, cultural event programs, tourism promotion (so many sessions at the Confucius Institute’s Chinese Language Exchange made me miss China a lot!), and opportunities to interact with native speakers. But especially in the era of globalization and trying to move forward from imperialism and colonialism (well, trying), we need to be aware of the politics of representation, and endeavor to make these institutions more inclusive, reflecting the wonderful diversity of the countries, cultures, and languages they promote. I’m honestly not sure of the best way to move away from the paradigms of “standard-ness” and “authenticity” as they tend to be used in cultural and linguistic promotion organizations, but I guess brainstorming possibilities is all part of the fun of being a linguistics student.





Alliance Française London. (2015). Accessed 1 August 2016. Available from:

Hanban. (2014). About Confucius Institutes. Accessed 1 August 2016. Available from:

Hua, Z. and Li Wei. (2014). Geopolitics and the Changing Hierarchies of the Chinese Language: Implications for Policy and Practice of Chinese Language Teaching in Britain. Modern Language Journal, 98(1), pp. 326-339.


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