Page last updated at 07:14 GMT, Tuesday, 13 October 2009 08:14 UK

Learn Chinese for free... in Liberia

Liberians learning Chinese

By Jonathan Paye-Layleh
BBC News, Monrovia

China is often criticised for taking from Africa but giving little back. Not so in Liberia, where Chinese officials are moving into quite new territory - language lessons.

At the front of a makeshift classroom in Monrovia's main sports stadium, Chinese teacher Li Peng runs through the pleasantries all language students are compelled to master.

Good morning, good evening, please, thank you.

Seated on plastic chairs in front of him are about a dozen Liberians - most of them young and keen to visit China, perhaps even study there.

The Chinese are more open to us than the Americans are
John Cooper
Language student

At first the students are hesitant and even a little embarrassed.

Forming the sounds of a new language is never easy. But the teachers are determined.

"Learning Chinese may prove difficult but if they work hard they will make it," says Mr Li.

During one lesson he tells the class: "If you all want to go to China - because China is a beautiful place - you have to learn Chinese."

China vs America

As in much of Africa, China is heavily engaged in post-war Liberia, rebuilding roads with funding from the World Bank, managing hotels and restaurants, trading in medicines and other businesses.

China is Africa's second-biggest trading partner, behind US
Between 2002 and 2003 two-way trade doubles to $18.5bn
By 2008 trade tops $100bn - China exports $51bn, imports $56bn
Almost all imports come from oil-rich nations: Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, and Sudan
Sources: China Daily, Reuters, Council on Foreign Relations

Chinese mineral firm China Union became the largest investor in Liberia when it signed a $2.6bn deal to go into iron-ore mining earlier this year.

There is even a Chinese-language radio station broadcasting across the country for the increasing number of migrant workers and expatriates.

The growing trade ties explain why the Chinese embassy and the Ministry of Youth and Sports have decided to put on free two-hour classes in the afternoon, five days a week.

Although attendances for the first few classes were sparse because of torrential rain in Monrovia, the students who did turn up were serious about the task.

John Cooper, 57, from Monrovia, says the lessons reflect Liberia's changing political allegiances.

"Traditionally Liberians are closer to the Americans than we are to the Chinese, but the irony is that the Chinese are more open to us than the Americans are," he says.

"If the Chinese stay here with us for about 25 years, it will be good for us."

No Liberians can read the documents they sign, they don't understand the Chinese copy, they just sign it as it is
Zhou Yuxiao
Chinese ambassador

A middle-aged woman attending the lessons agrees that the classes are important for the country.

"In Liberia we speak only English and instead of learning French, we play with French - it is just too bad for a nation," she says.

For others, like 40-year-old Tubman Nyennety, the motivation for doing the class is driven by personal ambition.

"We need to learn Chinese because you never tell when you will have the opportunity to travel to China," he says.

Another student, Musu Woodfor, recalls the difficulties she faced when she fled the civil war to Liberia's French-speaking neighbours.

"We learn French, so why not Chinese? The language barrier was a problem when we travelled as a result of the war."

Accords unread

Although Chinese officials will be heartened by the positive views expressed by the students, they are also hopeful that members of Liberia's government will take up the classes.

Liberians greeting Hu Jintao in 2007
Liberia prepared a rapturous welcome for Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2007

Chinese ambassador Zhou Yuxiao, who helped to set up the classes, says the lack of Chinese language skills among government officials can be a problem.

"Even in the Foreign Ministry in Liberia, nobody can speak Chinese ," he says.

"When [officials] visit China, they have to have an interpreter from the Chinese side only; there is discrepancy."

He says he is unhappy that Liberian officials cannot understand Chinese versions of the numerous bilateral agreements they sign.

"No Liberians can read the documents they sign, they don't understand the Chinese copy, they just sign it as it is," he says.

"It's not fair, [you should] check the document that you are signing."

Liberia's Ministry of Youth and Sports agree that the language barrier is a problem.

"Chinese are here in construction work, etcetera," says ministry spokesman Macaulay Paykue.

"If we have to deal with these people and they have to deal with us, it is only prudent that we understand each other."

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