Yunnan: The Place to Find Talent
Oct 03, 2014

It may not come right to mind, but the quickest route to finding skilled personnel to take on the ASEAN region is Yunnan, the one-stop shop for Southeast Asian language experts.

When you have a grasp of language and culture, the market is yours to seize.

Taiwanese business people frequently show great enthusiasm for venturing into the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) market but lament that "qualified people are too hard to find."

In China, however, there is a Southeast Asian language professional incubator that churns out 50,000 trained people each year. That would be Yunnan, the Chinese province that borders the north ASEAN area.

During the graduation season this past June, China's university students came up against "the hardest year ever to find employment." Tucked away in southwestern China, the School of Southeast and South Asia Languages and Cultures at Yunnan University of Nationalities graduated 280 students this year. Of them, 80 percent have found employment.

"Graduates with expertise in Southeast Asian languages are in especially good position to find work. State banks, central government enterprises, customs, the tourism industry, and those looking to do business in the Southeast Asian market come to us looking for the qualified talent they need," relates Lu Sheng, director of the School. Speaking from a temporary office space while buildings on the school's central Kunming campus undergo a major renovation over the summer break, his excitement is palpable.

The Yunnan University of Nationalities was the province's first university to establish a department for instruction in Southeast Asian languages. Currently the school offers courses in eight Southeast and South Asian languages – Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, Lao, Khmer, Bahasa Malay, Bahasa Indonesian, and Hindi.

Recalling the school's initial foray into teaching these languages, Lu Sheng takes us back 20 years.

Back then, tourists began pouring into naturally alluring Kunming, the majority ethnic Chinese from regional countries like Thailand and Myanmar with close geographic and historical ties. With so much commercial opportunity before them, Kunming's travel agencies found themselves in the awkward position of being unable to find Thai and Burmese language guides to provide full services to this target market.

"Yunnan's institutions of higher education essentially ignored Southeast Asian countries, only having eyes for Western countries," states Lu Sheng frankly.

Recognizing the opportunities at hand, Yunnan University of Nationalities set up Yunnan's first Thai and Burmese language departments.

To the school's surprise, however, it was an immediate flop.

Not just across the educational realm, but also among students and parents, people's hearts and minds were captivated by the West. "Parents didn't want their children to study [those languages], and some didn't even know where Thailand or Myanmar are," Lu Sheng recalls. Compared to most departments, which attract an average of 30 students, the Thai language department only got eight registrants, while Burmese found just nine takers.

Policy Incentives

Everything began to turn around starting in 2009.

Hu Jintao, state president and party chairman at the time, took a tour of Yunnan and designated the province as China's vital interface with the ASEAN region. Combined with the successive completion of the Kunming-Bangkok Highway and connecting waterways, commercial exchanges between southwestern China and ASEAN began to take off.

Over half of Yunnan's institutions of higher learning, 66 schools to date, have established at least one Southeast Asian academic discipline, with Yunnan University of Nationalities covering nearly every regional language group.

"Once Yunnan was designated a region of national strategic importance, the cultural and educational realm kicked into action. In line with this policy, the Yunnan Province Office of Education set up a Minor Languages Educational Guidance Committee and Minor Language Expert Training Task Force," relates He Shengda, deputy director of the China Society for Southeast Asian Studies. In China's southwestern provinces, Southeast Asian and South Asian languages are called "minor languages."

According to statistics from the Yunnan Province Office of Education, between undergraduates in related departments and others electing to take courses in Southeast Asian languages, more than 50,000 students on average have studied related subjects each quarter over the past three years at Yunnan's colleges and universities.

The government's considerable support behind the initiatives has greatly enhanced the status of Southeast Asian languages in southwest China's Yunnan and Guangxi provinces.

Similarity to Minority Languages

Yunnan natives have an innate advantage when studying Southeast Asian languages. "For instance, for the Dai people, their language is closely related to Thai and Lao. While English is difficult for them, learning Thai or Burmese as a foreign language is easy," offers Lu Sheng. A member of the Dai minority himself from Xishuangbanna, Lu speaks fluent Thai.

Another strength is that the school lets students go out and practice what they learn.

The Yunnan University of Nationalities also took the lead with its introduction of the "3 + 1" model.

This approach dates back to 2002, when Lu Sheng led a group of students on a one-month exchange to Chiang Mai University and Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

For many students, these exchanges are their first time traveling outside of China. First, Lu Sheng takes them by boat over the Mekong River to Chiang Saen, and then by road to Chiang Mai. They then travel by rail to Bangkok and live in dormitories on the Chulalongkorn University campus before finally flying back to Yunnan.

This unusual itinerary allows the students to experience travel over land, air and water, bridging the gap with the ASEAN region.

The subsequent "3 + 1" model entails living overseas for a year before returning home. This experience not only greatly enhances their speaking and listening skills, but also their job prospects.

Several Yunnan University of Nationalities graduates fluent in Burmese, Khmer (Cambodian), and Lao have been scooped up by Beijing National Broadcasting, the international programming departments of various television stations, and state-run banks.

Other Yunnan universities followed YUN's model, and students studying Southeast Asian languages in the target country became a matter of course for language study. And the trend has gained momentum and spread beyond provincial borders to other provinces as well, with colleges and universities in neighboring Sichuan establishing Thai and Burmese language departments.

China has intensified its investment in the ASEAN region in recent years, including such major infrastructure projects as an oil pipeline between China and Myanmar, and Sinopec bidding for contracts in the ASEAN region, generating a great need for qualified personnel. With the establishment of the ASEAN common market next year, this troupe of newly minted Southeast Asian language experts will be put to immediate use.

With personnel incubators in place, and exercising a good grasp of language experts, China wields a powerful weapon for breaking into the front lines of the ASEAN region.

In contrast, while Taiwan's government and business community talk big about forging into the ASEAN region, finding diplomats, trade negotiators, and business people proficient in Southeast Asian languages has become a sticky issue.

Among Taiwan's second generation born to immigrants from the ASEAN region, few are proficient in their mother's native tongue due to the pressures of widespread societal discrimination.

No university in Taiwan has a department for teaching ASEAN region languages and cultures, and Tamkang University and National Chi Nan University – both of which have institutions for Southeast Asian studies – only focus on Southeast Asian politics and economics. This leaves those interested in learning ASEAN languages to attend classes at minor cram schools or the Youth Service Taiwan network.

Yunnan has achieved significant results in minor Southeast Asian languages over the past decade. It is still not too late for Taiwan if it starts now.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman