Photo: Courtesy of the Confucius Institute

With the consolidation of cultural, commercial and economic relations between Cuba and China, the governments of the two countries maintain exchange agreements for Chinese students to learn Spanish and Cubans to learn Mandarin.

The wave of Chinese immigrants arriving in the Caribbean island toward the end of the 19th century and through the first half of the 20th, were forced to learn Spanish without access to formal education. The vast majority came from the southern province of Guangdong and as such used Cantonese within their community.

Following the triumph of the Revolution on January 1, 1959, the teaching of Mandarin (the official language of the Asian nation) began in the 1960s at the Maximo Gorki Institute of Foreign Languages and the Abraham Lincoln Foreign Language School, and in the 1970s at the Pablo Lafargue Higher Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages.

Since 2010 this ancient language has been more widely taught on the island, following the establishment of the Confucius Institute at the University of Havana, with the aim of promoting knowledge of the Chinese language and culture.

To date, more than 3,000 students have enrolled in the various classes offered at the Institute (basic, intermediate and advanced courses lasting one academic year), providing human resources trained in the Chinese language for the future.

The Institute also organizes lectures, film screenings, photo, calligraphy and children's drawing and painting exhibitions, contests, cultural events and many other activities, which have been enjoyed by over 24,000 people, in its over five years of operation.

Registered students have diverse professions and attend classes at different times, with a day, afternoon and evening schedule, according to their work or study commitments, and also participate in cultural activities outside the center, depending on their availability. Four of these students spoke to Granma International.

Wilson Barroso Díaz, a teacher at the Pedro Portuondo Primary School in the capital’s Plaza de la Revolución municipality, was motivated by a friend to study the Chinese language, enrolling in an initial course at a cultural institution before taking the Confucius Institute’s proficiency test.

“This language opens up new avenues to me, as a Spanish teacher I can teach Chinese to others or teach Spanish to Chinese students, I've already dabbled in training youths from the Asian country in our language and culture. My fifth grade students ask me to teach them, but in this case it is very important to follow a methodology, I just tell them about the traditions and history I have learned at the Confucius Institute,” he explained.

Wilson took second place in the national “Chinese Bridge” contest, which evaluates a speech of almost ten minutes in the language, responses to questions related to Chinese society, and the presentation of an artistic expression of Chinese culture.

“I am now able to read a text in Chinese, talk for a long time,” Wilson noted, adding, “I did not realize, but during a phone call my mother told me: You've spent more than 30 minutes talking in a language I do not know. I visit Chinese friends, we sit down to talk, and I spend a lot of time in conversation.”

Given the high level Wilson has reached in the language, he won a scholarship to China, together with his classmate Karina Montero Pedraja, who offered a tea ceremony to gain third place in the competition. The first place winner goes on to compete with other students of the 588 Confucius Institutes in 88 countries.

Karina, aged 22, is passionate about learning languages and is also currently studying Italian at the Dante Aligheri Institute. While recognizing that Chinese is challenging, her teacher for the basic course was fluent in Spanish, which aided explanations of the language's different characters, and the meaning of the different Pinyin sounds (romanization system for Mandarin). “This made me fall in love with the language,” she noted.

Another young man, Brayan Gómez Martinez, was also awarded a scholarship. He works as an auto mechanic and believes he can link the two activities, as there are many companies dedicated to producing vehicles in China and some of them export to Cuba, offering the opportunity to work in this industrial field.

Daína Pestana Blay, has found learning Chinese a magical experience, difficult to describe. She noted that when immersed in the learning process, repetitions and classes can become boring, but over time one gathers the required knowledge and it starts to make sense.

“I approached this language out of curiosity,” she explained, “after concluding my pre-university education, a degree in Chinese language was offered including a scholarship plan to study for two years in Cuba and the rest in China. Upon enrolling, I was a student of a Chinese professor who was unfamiliar with Spanish, he demanded a lot of us.”

Daína is currently finishing her degree in English Language and is one of the students of the advanced Chinese course at the Confucius Institute. She has already visited the Asian nation twice, thanks to scholarships offered by the Institute, and plans to work as a translator in either of the two languages she has learned. She advises people to be patient when learning a language, as one day, suddenly, all the studying magically falls into place.


In October 2007, the first Chinese students arrived at Tarará beach, to the east of Havana, to study a degree in Spanish Language. In total, over 2,800 have travelled to the island in less than two years and a faculty was created to teach Spanish to international students.

Bai Na, from the northern Chinese city of Huhhot, bordering Mongolia and Russia, signed up to travel to this distant country, due to his curiosity to cross the ocean. Beforehand, his only knowledge of Cuba was related to the Revolution and leaders Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara.

“We came in November 2007, in my country the snow was falling and here the temperatures were very high, the first difficulty was in communicating with the personnel working closely with us. Luckily, the teachers were very patient and the study program included trips to different historical and social places,” he explained.

His friend Yang Yan (also a student of the Tarará project) noted that at first she cried for many nights as she missed her family, but the care and attention of Cuban personnel made things easier: “At school we received all kinds of provisions. There was a well equipped hospital with doctors and nurses around the clock, they put together our medical records and were aware of any students’ illnesses. If there were any problems, the leading professor, in charge of the group, was told and resolved them.”

In learning Spanish, the most difficult aspect to grasp was the pronunciation of the double “r” sound, Yang Yan explained: “There are words in Spanish which have no meaning in our language, such as Reggaetón. Similarly, when we are talking in Chinese, Spanish words pop up in the conversation, and we understand each other using a mixture of both languages.”

Once they finish their degree, both students will return to their home country for a year, but they hope to later continue their doctoral studies in Cuba. Bai Na is researching the history of Chinese socialism and Yang Yan is studying business communication.

Bai Na noted that he enjoys Cuban cinema and was struck by the film Strawberry and Chocolate, given its bold stance against homophobia. “I think Cubans are very friendly, open and treat us Chinese very well, I like their way of being. They care for and relate well with us, I have much to thank Cubans for, for all they have taught me.”

Meanwhile, Yang Yan concluded, “I want to thank this country; I have been taught how to face the world, from another perspective and another outlook. I arrived as a shy, close-minded girl, occasionally cowardly, but now I face difficulties without fear.”