As China's economy goes from strength to strength, the country is also making great efforts to promote its language and culture across the world. In just three years, China has opened branches of its Confucius Institute in over 70 countries around the world. The first Confucius Institute in the Czech Republic was opened on Wednesday at Palacky University in Olomouc. I spoke to the head of the centre David Uher and started by asking him whether it was the university's own initiative or whether it was the Chinese who approached them.
"It was both. In fact, our vice-president was in Germany visiting one of the Confucius Institutes and he thought it would be interesting to have one in the Czech Republic so he contacted me and the Chinese embassy in Prague and we opened the Confucius Institute cooperation with the embassy."
Why was the Institute opened in Olomouc and not at the Charles University in Prague?
"I am not very sure about this but I think that the embassy asked the Charles University, the department of Far East studies, and they said they were not really interested. Firstly, they have a centre sponsored by an organization working in Taiwan and secondly they didn't have enough room."
What are the main aims of the Confucius Institute?
"Firstly it is teaching Chinese and secondly it is consultation for companies or people going to China, who have never been there and want to know something about China. They are for example travelling or they want to make business there. The third main purpose of this organization is to introduce Chinese culture to Czech people."
Are you free to decide about the content of your lectures or are you in any way controlled by the Chinese?
"We receive money from Chinese government, we receive books every year and there should be two teachers sent by China to the Czech Republic. Their salary and accommodation is fully paid by the Chinese government. But the institute itself is not under control."
I guess people are more interested in Chinese language courses than they were in the past.
"Definitely. When I started to work here thirteen years ago we had just 15 students in one grade. Now we have about 80 in the first grade and 40 in the second and altogether we have 200 people studying Chinese. I believe it has something to do with the popularity of China around the world and with the economic reforms that are now in China."
How do you teach Chinese? Is the method any different from teaching for example European languages?
"We will have courses for one student, four students and eight students. The groups are very small so the teaching method is very effective. We pay attention to spoken language first, because it is easier to study Chinese characters when you are able to speak."
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