Chinese revolution

China is expected to become one of the world's leading economies. So why are pupils still learning French rather than Mandarin, asks Caroline Haydon
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The Independent Online

Which foreign language would you like your child to speak? For most students,there is little or no choice. French, despite predictions that it will disappear as an international language, dominates the timetables, followed by German and Spanish. And what of China, the country that Gordon Brown says is emerging as a leading world economy? Are our children learning Mandarin, ready for 2010, by which time Brown expects our exports to China to quadruple? The answer, of course, is no, not really. GCSE entries for the Chinese languages of Cantonese and Mandarin crept up to just under 4,000 last year. Even with its falling popularity, however, the number of entries in French still hit 320,000.

Which foreign language would you like your child to speak? For most students,there is little or no choice. French, despite predictions that it will disappear as an international language, dominates the timetables, followed by German and Spanish. And what of China, the country that Gordon Brown says is emerging as a leading world economy? Are our children learning Mandarin, ready for 2010, by which time Brown expects our exports to China to quadruple? The answer, of course, is no, not really. GCSE entries for the Chinese languages of Cantonese and Mandarin crept up to just under 4,000 last year. Even with its falling popularity, however, the number of entries in French still hit 320,000.

Our obsession with the language of our neighbours over the Channel must have a little to do with the chattering classes' liking for holidays in the Dordogne. But it is also a self-fulfilling prophecy, says Margaret Lenton, headteacher of Slough Grammar School, who is determined that her pupils will have an opportunity to get to grips with the language spoken by one-fifth of the world's population, and one that already dominates the web. "We teach French in schools, we have French graduates, and they go on to teach French," she says. "But by the time my year sevens reach university, China will be a very important country indeed, and we ought to be looking more at the world picture."

About 150 students in Lenton's school now learn some Mandarin, wielding their calligraphy brushes under the tuition of the fourth Chinese language assistant that Lenton has brought to the school, Linzi Pan. The Chinese assistants who make it to this country are fearsomely well qualified - Pan saw off competition from about 200 of her compatriots equally keen to come here. There are about 30 assistants working in primaries and secondaries across the country, who not only contribute to language classes but also help to inject some idea of Chinese culture in the curriculum. Slough students also get a chance to visit China, thanks to the British Council's annual immersion courses for students in Years 8 to 12, which give those travelling at least two weeks in a major Chinese city, learning the language as well as seeing the sights.

Slough Grammar is twinned with the middle school attached to Shanghai Teachers' University - and it won't be the last if the Chancellor has his way. Brown made it clear in a speech he delivered in China last month that he wants every school, college and university to be twinned with an equivalent in China within the next five years. Mostly, however, he concentrated on promoting the export of English-language teaching: more than 300 million Chinese are estimated to speak English, a big market by anyone's standards. But Lenton and others like her feel that this has to be a two-way process - we need to learn Mandarin, too. "If you are in a business negotiation you need to speak the language," says Lenton, "not just rely on what people want you to hear."

Dame Mary Richardson, the chief executive of the HSBC Education Trust, which helps to organise competitions and seminars to promote the language, and supports Chinese assistants in this country, has long campaigned on this issue. She argues that English-language education is a good export but that we don't want to "anglicise the world". "If we understand the language, it is a way into the culture, and you need to understand the culture to trade properly," she says. "We must do more. If we don't respect our customers and clients, they won't remain customers and clients."

Added to that, says Kathy Wicksteed of the Specialist Schools Trust, it's healthy to increase the range of languages in schools, as well as being motivational for pupils - boys, for some reason, are often cited as liking Mandarin. And, while learning a European language no longer seems exotic, China - and its language - is unknown and therefore exciting territory.

Wicksteed says that language colleges are providing a platform for a surge of interest in the language. "Specialist language colleges are expected to broaden the range of languages they teach as well as look at world languages when they write their plans to become designated," she says. The British Council guesses that there are about 100 state schools teaching Chinese in England, as well as many more independent and weekend schools.

Carol Rennie, the secretary of the British Association for Chinese Studies, is adamant that we need much more investment (including in teacher training and professional development) before we can introduce Chinese studies across the curriculum. "We will be lobbying curriculum content providers about this," she says.

More schools will have to be persuaded that non-native speakers of Chinese will get good grades at GCSE-level and above. At Slough, Lenton is reluctant to enter her pupils for Mandarin at GCSE because she feels the exams are too difficult for English learners, and many teachers agree. Dr Valerie Pellatt, the chair of examiners of Chinese at Edexcel, says that she's aware there have been problems. "We're doing our best to talk to teachers about this and meet them in the middle," she says, adding that she hopes the problems with GCSE-level Mandarin are now ironed out, but that the board is working to make AS- and A-level exams more "accessible" in certain areas.

Mandarin grammar, she points out, is not so difficult - there are no tenses or plurals - but learning Chinese characters is testing, so reading and writing becomes more challenging than speaking. That is one reason why the inclusion of Mandarin in the next pilot stage of the Government's graded qualification scheme, the Languages Ladder, is so important. Students will be able to gain credits for a six-stage "ladder of proficiency" from "Breakthrough" to "Mastery", and they can choose to be assessed just on listening and speaking, leaving out reading and writing.

Anecdotally, teachers report more interest in Mandarin than 10 years ago, when people who studied it as a language largely did so because it was interesting to study in an academic sense, and rather exotic. Katherine Carruthers, the Chinese network coordinator for the Specialist Schools Trust, says that many adults now learn the language for business reasons. The interest is coming from all age groups, and evening-class provision across the country has shot up.

For Rennie, it is very much about shifting British attitudes. "The British Council has historically promoted Britain in China," she says. "Now, we all ought to be making sure Britain is equipped to deal with China. At least in 50 years' time we will have the satisfaction of saying we were right."

education@independent.co.uk

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