Reaffirming international connections through language
During his visit to UNOG, an interview with President Yang, of Beijing Foreign Studies University reveals the importance of international peace to the University's ethos.
23 Jul 2023

The Beijing Foreign Studies University teaches 101 languages to its students as well as offering programs in law, humanities and economics to name a few. During a visit to UNOG, President Yang speaks candidly about how the university aims to foster international peace and the importance of teaching foreign languages.

President Yang, what is the main objective of your visit to UNOG?

My aim is to see the United Nations and global governance in action, which re-affirms the mission of Beijing Foreign Studies University of “keeping an open mind to serve a great cause” and our commitment to build a better world through the promotion of better mutual understanding.

International organizations, including the United Nations, play a vital role in fostering international governance, peace, and stability, as well as facilitating understanding among nations and peoples and resolving conflicts. Education and educational institutions should also contribute to this goal. As president of one of the best universities in China, my mission is to cultivate the younger generation through education, foster cross-cultural dialogue in order to contribute to world peace and development, bolster effective communication and cultural exchange, and advance overall prosperity.

Could you talk about the significance of language learning at your university?

Language is a vector of culture; it is also culture itself. Language, including language learning, language services, language research and language preservation, is critical in shaping the world of tomorrow.

With over 80 years of experience in foreign language education, BFSU has embraced the mission of cultivating young talent, empowering people through languages, and promoting cultural exchanges between China and other countries. Its education programs cover 101 foreign languages, including most of the official languages spoken in the UN’s 193 Member States. Moreover, BFSU actively co-manages 23 Confucius Institutes, promoting understanding between China and the rest of the world through Chinese language instruction.

Recent advancements in technology and an abundance of new resources have made global language education and services more accessible than ever before. These developments present fresh opportunities for BFSU to actively engage in global and regional intercultural dialogues, forging partnerships with other universities and international organizations.

How do you manage the language teaching program of 101 languages?

Let me assure you, teaching so many languages in a single university is no small feat. However, we have managed to achieve this through the implementation of innovative ideas. One example is the establishment of a global language service platform aiming at improving the efficiency of language learning and language services. Currently, we are in the process of building an open and public platform that integrates the four functions of language learning, language service, language research and language preservation. I call it the “Didi Taxi of languages,” which is similar to the Uber taxi service here. The platform takes into account the supply and demand dynamics of language services, and will respond efficiently to more language users’ diverse demands for language service.

How do you see the link between your university, your country, and the world?

As an educational institution with over 11,000 students, BFSU recognizes its role in contributing to a global consensus which, in my opinion, has three dimensions: Chinese perspectives of the world, the world’s perspectives of China and the global perspective of the future.

BFSU helps shape Chinese perspectives of the world through foreign language teaching and research of diverse languages and cultures. The world’s perspectives of China are judged through what we do in international communication and understanding. It is imperative that we make our voice heard worldwide. Furthermore, to cultivate a global outlook on the future, it is essential for people to develop a deeper understanding of each other, embrace shared values and pursue common goals to achieve good global governance.

At BFSU, we offer educational programs in a variety of underrepresented languages, such as Zulu. Additionally, we have initiated the Global Alliance of Foreign Studies Universities, which consists of 38 institutions from 19 countries, and set up the Chinese University Alliance on Foreign Language MOOCs (UMOOCs). All these efforts aim to promote an international community of mutual understanding. In September, we will officially launch our global language service platform, enabling learners and educators worldwide to freely engage in learning and communication across diverse languages. I would like to sum up the purposes of the platform with five A’s: to enable Anyone to have access to Any language at Any time Anywhere and in Any way.

Another significant aspect of our future outlook is the development of science and technologies, especially AI. BFSU has also built up a corpus and established a key laboratory for AI and human language research.

In the era of industrial revolution, machines surpassed humans in physical strength. With the current AI revolution, machines have the potential to surpass humans in intelligence. Therefore, it becomes imperative for humanity to redefine its purpose and existence, regain confidence, and confront emerging challenges. This new starting point is not linked to physical or intellectual capabilities; it is more about human cognition and perception, which are key to distinguishing human beings from animals. Human cognition and perception are based on personalized experience, rendering it impossible for machines to replace us in these aspects.

Why do you think languages or language learning can make us overcome the challenges posed by AI?

Language is the cornerstone of cognition, and it is also an important tool and key in addressing the challenges faced by humanity. Language is an important force for resolving inequality and imbalance. Contemporary philosophy is the philosophy of language, and language is a unique and important part of the human genetic makeup. The famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposed that people’s perceptions of the world are influenced by the languages they speak. Therefore, the protection of languages is the preservation of human civilizations; it is also the very foundation for the protection of human beings.

I just came from a visit to the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, where I saw The Fall of Icarus, an awe-inspiring mural painted by Pablo Picasso. It made me wonder why we do not have more great musicians like Beethoven or painters like Picasso in contemporary times when many middle school students possess knowledge in physics or mathematics comparable to or surpassing the great Isaac Newton or Pythagoras. This is because scientific knowledge is systematic and governed by certain rules, allowing for cumulative progress. On the other hand, art and music transcend accumulative knowledge of rules or laws; they revolve around a deep understanding of our shared humanity. Machines can surpass humans in physical and even intellectual power, but they cannot rival humans in the realms of music, art, and language. Take, for instance, ChatGPT, which has been so popular lately. Despite its capabilities, ChatGPT lacks imagination, as it operates within the confines of existing information.

At BFSU, we have undertaken research on indexes in recent years and we have introduced two terms: “indexology” and “indexopedia.” These concepts leverage indexes as a fresh approach to constructing a comprehensive, quantified, and simplified understanding of various subjects. By utilizing indexes, we aim to reinterpret the world and foster a new worldview. Specifically, we employ indexology as a streamlined and quantitative approach to evaluate and advance the development of languages.

What are your perspectives of the world and its future?

Our world is currently grappling with numerous challenges, many of which have global implications. Addressing those challenges with a spirit of global solidarity based on international understanding will unlock fresh opportunities for global development.

Among these challenges are the emergence of new technologies, such as ChatGPT and OpenAI, whose potential impact can be comparable to that of atomic bomb as they have the capacity to bring about radical changes.

In the age of information technology, we often encounter multiple levels of truth or facts. It becomes increasingly difficult to discern what is the genuine truth or what constitutes a real fact. Disinformation and misinformation may undermine international understanding and solidarity. We need to sort out mutually corroborated truths from a slew of multifarious, complex sources of information.

In my opinion, the principles of multilateralism, sustainable development, and inclusive growth, championed by the United Nations, – are now particularly valuable in the present context. This makes multilingualism on the Internet particularly important as the inequality in language use contributes to digital and information gaps, ultimately hindering the effective implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

* Prisca Chaoui is Editor-in-chief of UN Today and Dan Lin is Senior Reviser at UNOG
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