RAMALLAH, West Bank — Birzeit University is now the first Palestinian college to teach the Chinese language, and officials there think a lone course could expand into a bachelor's program.
The university launched the course Feb. 11, at the beginning of the academic year's second term, and student interest has been high, Magdi Abu Zahra, director of the school's Department of Languages and Translation, told Al-Monitor.
"The call for registration in Chinese courses surprised the students because Chinese is among the toughest languages to learn in the world and differs from other foreign languages taught at the university," Abu Zahra said. "Still, there was a high turnout, and the required number of students to open the class, which is 25, was met. Due to the high number of students insisting on learning Chinese, 30 students were accepted instead of only 25, and other registration applications await approval."
In fact, although the course currently is open to students only, Abu Zahra said businesspeople and traders applied to take it, believing it could help them in their work, as they have economic and trade ties with China.
The university wants to develop the educational services it offers its students, and the Chinese course constitutes a significant upgrade to its language curriculum, which already sets the school apart from other Palestinian universities, according to Abu Zahra. Birzeit offers bachelor's degrees in three languages — French, German and English — and aims to offer more. Other languages are taught as elective courses: Italian, Spanish, Turkish and Hebrew.
The Chinese course resulted from a cooperation agreement with the Chinese embassy in Palestine that was reached after several joint meetings. The embassy then worked with China's Confucius Institute to provide a teacher. The university pays the teacher's salary and provides a rent allowance, while the embassy covers any remaining expenses like round-trip travel tickets that — when a teacher comes from China — costs around $1,000.
Abu Zahra said the university administration is trying to make the classroom experience positive and successful and has asked the Chinese teacher to adopt a simple teaching method, be lenient with grading and use English in class when needed.
He said that the university was encouraged to teach Chinese because "China is a highly influential state politically and economically and is increasingly dominating global markets." Palestinian and Chinese trade ties are "flourishing," he added, and knowledge of the Chinese language will "widen [students'] job horizons in the future."
China supports the creation of a Palestinian state. Furthermore, Palestine has special economic and political ties with China and they have established several joint cooperation agreements. In 2014, Palestine imported goods from China worth an estimated $208 million. More than 70% of the items on display in Palestinian markets are from China. So far, however, China is not one of Palestine's larger export markets.
Abu Zahra said he expects Birzeit's Chinese language program to grow, with the right support. "We offer Chinese first-level classes at the moment. If there is a high student turnout, we will open a second-level course," he said. Abu Zahra even thinks Birzeit University eventually will offer a bachelor's degree in the Chinese language, if the Chinese embassy supports the effort by providing the necessary textbooks and teachers.
The university's Department of Languages and Translation is open to teaching any foreign language. Abu Zahra said, "Any country that wants to teach its language at our university can sign an agreement with us, provided that it offers funding, teachers and books. We cannot afford these expenses, given our financial crisis. But we are open to teaching all languages of the world."
Majdi al-Maliki, dean of the Faculty of Literature, which is affiliated with the Department of Languages and Translation, told Al-Monitor, "Teaching Chinese will remove the barriers between students and Chinese culture, which is foreign to them. China is one of the most powerful countries economically and industrially and has interests in the Arab region. This might open up employment opportunities for the students."
Like Abu Zahra, Maliki also mentioned the possibility of introducing advanced classes in Chinese "to reach a bachelor's degree, just like we succeeded in doing with German language classes."
The Department of Languages and Translation started with one German language class, then introduced a bachelor's degree in 2015, per an agreement with the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Under the agreement, the university received teachers and textbooks. Incentives and grants were established for exceptional students, either by offering them training sessions or scholarships to pursue a master's degree in German, or by appointing them as research assistants and assistant teachers after graduation.
Sociology student Mohammad al-Khatib told Al-Monitor that he enrolled in Chinese classes because he believes the language will become an asset for him. He noted, "Students accepted the Chinese [course] although it is hard, and we are trying to learn the simplest words and sentences that can allow us to communicate with Chinese people. … This might help us in the future if we decide to work in the trade and export field in China."
The Department of Languages and Translation, which was opened in 1987, is one of largest at the university, which is about 6 miles (10 kilometers) north of Ramallah in the West Bank.
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