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La Academia News

Should children learn Chinese rather than French or German?

Posted on : November 9, 2015

During his recent visit to China Chancellor George Osborne said that schools will get £10m of extra funding to teach Mandarin Chinese. He revealed his daughter, Liberty, was already learning China’s main language, and said that 5,000 more pupils will learn Mandarin by 2020.

la Academia is in favour of any investment in language learning, but we have some questions about the practicalities of increasing Chinese teaching in schools.

What’s the current situation?

Currently only 2% of state primary schools and 5% of state secondaries offer Mandarin. Last year the total number of GCSE entries for Mandarin and Cantonese was 3,710. This includes a high proportion of children who are native speakers or whose heritage is Chinese, and who are learning the language at Saturday schools.

Where are people currently learning Chinese?

Research by the British Council found that only 1% of UK adults speak Mandarin to a level that allows them to conduct a basic conversation. Again, these are largely people with Chinese heritage (500,000 people). For non-native speakers, this is mostly being done at University level.

You do not need to know any Mandarin before starting a degree course in the language, however Universities usually require you to have studied another language at “A” level – this is one way that students can escape the strait jacket of French-German-Spanish and move onto a new language. Unfortunately, not many of these are moving on to share their language skills with younger learners.

So, where will the Mandarin teachers come from?

According to UCAS only 60 Mandarin teachers started initial teacher training this September in England. There may be some existing language teachers who will take up Mandarin in addition to their other languages, but most of the teachers needed will have to be freshly trained.

Could schools recruit conversation teachers from China?

The Japanese Education Ministry, in a nationwide programme, recruits almost 5,000 foreign nationals a year to support language learning in Japanese schools (the JET Scheme). Most of these are native English speakers. A programme on this scale would boost take up of Chinese across the state sector, but it would require much more than £10m to set up and run.

On the plus side, the long-term effects would be much stronger, and the cultural impact of an influx of energetic young Chinese teachers could transform Chinese speaking in England as JET Scheme participants have galvanised Japan’s previously grammar-rigid English teaching.

Could schools offer language trips and programmes to the same level?

Many schools have established language trips and exchanges to help students gain exposure to the main languages currently offered in schools – Spanish, French and German. Arranging similar opportunities in China is much more complex and also more expensive, so students may not get this language enrichment in Mandarin.

How can la Academia help?

La Academia can help (as we already do) by offering languages including Chinese at Primary School, and also by teaching children and adults who have an interest in learning Chinese. We can also support children studying other languages at GCSE and A-level, providing them with the platform to take up Chinese at University.

If, like Mr Osborne, you think that Mandarin is more “relevant” than traditional options like French or German, and you want your child to get started, ask your school to contact us, and we’ll arrange some taster sessions, or even a programme of lessons leading to GCSE. In the meantime, we’ll be tracking down the £10m promised to see if any of it is being allocated to schools in the North West!

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